The Most Important Trick for Getting What You Want From Airlines (And Other Large Businesses)

There are several short cuts in life that make things easier and more efficient. Patrick Swayze in the old B-movie Road House used to carry his medical records with him. He explained to actress Kelly Lynch, his eventual love interest in the film, that this “saves time.” (That’s even easier now that medical records are digitized.)

Sam Elliott’s character taught me to work and play hard because “I’ll get all the sleep I need when I’m dead.”

Road House was filled with life lessons. You see it’s about a bouncer played by Swayze who sets out to clean up a bar and winds up cleaning up The. Whole. Town.

Swayze’s character Dalton majored in Philosophy at NYU. I’ve been a proponent of the Philosophy of “hang up, call back” for many years. When you don’t get the answer you want the first time, hang up the phone and talk to someone else.

  • Sometimes the first agent won’t be very motivated to help you. Sometimes they aren’t trying very hard.

  • They may not know the rules. It’s not worth fighting them, or even trying to teach them. The odds they’ll want to learn from you when they didn’t learn from their training are pretty low. At best you’re going to waste time, at worst you’re going to get remarks made in a reservation that won’t be helpful later.

  • Or maybe they’re right, and you’ll luck into someone on the next call that will do more to bend the rules for you.

Maybe you don’t know whether what you want is possible or not, whether it’s award availability or better flight options, and all you’re doing is relying on an agent on the other end of the line. Since you don’t know how hard the agent is working, or really anything about that agent, my starting point is not to trust the answer until you’ve heard it three times in a row from three different agents (with Delta sometimes more).

One corollary to this is that you have lots of options of places to go for help. If you’re dealing with an airline on the day of travel you have:

  • the check-in counter
  • kiosk, website, or app
  • telephone reservations
  • customer service counter
  • gate agent
  • Twitter (and in some cases Facebook messenger or other social media or messaging app)

If mom says no, go ask dad.

However even though you have lots of places to go for help, you still want to maximize your chances of getting what you want each time. The person you’re dealing with at that moment could be the one most likely to help you. And you may even be pressed for time, running out of options to get where you’re going, why burn the bridge in front of you and have to move on to the next?

There is merit in the old saying “you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.” It breaks down a bit when you start thinking too hard because there’s nothing nice that you’re ever trying to do with flies when you catch them. All it means is you’re more likely to get people to do nice things for you if you’re nice to them than if you’re a jerk.

The saying dates back, as I understand it, to Torriano’s Common Place of Italian Proverbs and entered the United States via Poor Richard’s Almanac (Benjamin Franklin) in 1744.

Just like Patrick Swayze taught us, I want you to be nice.

Judging from the comments I sometimes get on this blog, I know that some of you need this advice: whomever you’re dealing with is rarely the same person who caused the problem you’re dealing with. They have lots of people complaining to them all day long. You set yourself apart by treating them as a person, with their own emotions and motivations.

If the person in front of you in the customer service line is getting upset and taking it out on the agent, the agent is all the more ready to expect you to do the same. They’re not going to want to listen to your story or spend time working every angle to find a solution. They’re going to want to move you out of their line as quickly as possible. Basic human nature.

So turn that on its head. Acknowledge the difficult job they have. Acknowledge even that you’re adding to it. If they ask you how you’re doing, as bad as your travel day is, it’s probably not as bad as listening to complaining passengers all day. Make them smile. Make them laugh. They’ll be happy to do more to help you.

Even if you don’t care to treat the agent as a person for its own sake (because they’re a human being and it’s what’s due them) if you want to get better treatment you should start by interacting with the person on the other end as a person. From a purely self-interested perspective it’s better not to be a jerk.

To be clear, whether you’re dealing with an airline or working as a cooler for the Double Deuce, there comes a time to not be nice. But that’s not in the heat of the moment or during travel. That’s escalating things to executive management. To the Department of Transportation. It isn’t taking your frustrations out on a more junior employee.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Also what I have found works is to let *other people* ahead of you, especially if you have an odd request (like book me to EWR instead of JFK, because I can take Amtrak to NYC and then I’m guaranteed to get there).

    But being nice, asking how their day is going, is always better. I’ve even gotten a 1st class ticket out of it before I was flying a lot.

  2. Pretty basic advice but it is surprising how people ignore it. And the more you yell the less gets done (especially if you are a guest in another country). Just being calm, polite, sympathetic and kind does a lot–kids should learn this in kindergarten, for gosh sakes, but some people never know how to listen! The other day in a drug store the clerk ignored my manufacturer’s coupon and said the item was already on sale. I politely told her that was great but this was still a free item. That worked. But you also have to be proactive; sitting in a broken AA plane on the tarmac at MIA the phone number to call for help was announced. I did that and got a recording that I’d been rebooked. Everybody else just sat there and when we got off they lined up–150 of them–to talk to the gate agent. That was just silly. I used a little of the same time to politely ask an agent at another gate who I should see to make sure that my luggage had been transferred. Though things seemed busy there she did it for me. Amazing (and I wrote American a thank you note too).

  3. Gary! You forgot to mention the magic words the internet influencers claim solves all problems:


    Just purr these soft soothing syllables in the agents ear and the gates to paradise swing right open! I
    I read it on the internet so it must be true!


  4. I typically see more rude behavior from Tracy then I ever do from airline employees.

  5. If people didn’t learn/grow up with/develop an understanding of basic human decency, and the self-interested benefits of it prior to reaching adulthood, they’re unlikely to ever figure it out.

  6. Its the Millenial and Gen-Z entitlement mindset. Why be nice, that person “owes” me something.
    Honestly, in reality, if someone doesn’t like you, they are not going to help you get ahead in life- whether a job, customer service, or relationships. Not sure why this seems so foreign to people these days. And if they like you AND think you are attractive, you can pretty much get them to help you with anything.

  7. “You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar. But do you want flies? I don’t think so.”

    (This is a *joke* taken from my daily calendar “Getting in touch with your inner bitch”).

  8. Sometimes “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” trumps “you catch more flies with honey…”

    As the poet said: “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em…”

    I loved your “If mom says no, go ask dad.”

  9. Also it’s good to be proactive, & know what you need specifically. I was in DOH last month when the AA DOH-JFK flight cancelled! Around midnight. No AA agents at the transfer desk, just QR. Almost everyone else was in line going to get hotel vouchers. I was on the phone with AA saying QR has a non-stop DOH-MIA at 8:05 am, I’d like that flight. Got the last J seat.

  10. I often will go up to an agent at the customer service desk in the terminal (when there’s no line) and say: “My flight hasn’t been cancelled, I’m not mad at the airline, and I’m not going to yell at you. I just thought I’d give you one such customer today”. The agents break out laughing and thank me enthusiastically.

  11. This post is about dealings with the airlines. How should one deal with other passengers? Because there is lot of grief coming from other passengers these days…

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