What Americans (and United Airlines) Might Learn from South African Craftiness

Americans are known to like the head-on approach to solving problems and to vanquish an opponent. Not so much subtlety as a show of overwhelming force, even if a lot of resources are needed that might be more wisely used with a more thoughtful approach.

The latest brouhaha at United Airlines just underscores that point. If you live in a bubble and somehow haven’t heard about it, read a quick recap:

A flight is overbooked, the airline offers 4 free tickets if 4 passengers step forward to relinquish their seat, no one feels like it because a) they’ve got important places to be, and/or b) the value of the free tickets is laughably low, especially if – like it has happened to us in the past – they come with all sorts of blackout dates and other cumbersome strings attached. Bottom line: Instead of doing what the market dictates, i.e. upping the offer until you hit that sweet spot where supply meets demand, the airline does what a spiteful and overtired parent might do after unsuccessfully trying to bribe their kids to agree on who gets the window seat: They come down with the heavy diktat that 4 random people will be chosen who will have to leave the plane.

Except a wrinkle: The last of the 4 chosen ones refuses to leave, and starts screaming bloody murder when told to do so. Then the ultimate idiocy: The pilot – I assume it had to be the pilot – calls in law enforcement or security, and they proceed to drag the offending gentleman by his feat and through the aisle out of the plane.

My question: What rock do these people live under? Have they not heard about social media and the fact that people have, lo and behold, cameras on them at all times, and are very happy to film such an affront to a person’s dignity? Let alone the fact that it is just plain wrong to drag a paying passenger, or even any human being, by his feet, no matter how uncooperative he might be.

I can’t imagine what the fallout will be for United Airlines, and perhaps the entire airline industry by extension. I hope it is harsh. Double booking seats is common practice, but just imagine any other business doing the same. Like, selling concert tickets for Beyonce and somehow thinking, oh, we’ll just sell more than we have because surely some people won’t show up, and we will have made us some extra money! Yes, not quite the same, but I’m sure there are more comparable examples. I just find it satisfying that in this case, the bullies of the world are getting tremendous pushback.

The incident serves as a classic example of hard power versus soft power, and the benefits of stepping back from the brink to think about how using the latter might be so much easier and satisfying. Here is how Wikipedia defines the two:

“Soft power is a concept developed by Joseph Nye of Harvard University to describe the ability to attract and co-opt rather than by coercion (hard power), using force or giving money as a means of persuasion. Soft power is the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction.”

What would a soft power approach have looked like, you ask? I came across a great answer that a reader posted on Facebook:

“Another way to do this, without so much heartburn, was done by SAA a few years ago on a flight from JFK to Johannesburg. A woman passenger was found to not have a ticket/boarding pass and was asked to leave the plane while the matter was investigated. She refused; flight attendants then quietly spoke with other passengers about the situation, saying that they would make an announcement that the flight was cancelled, and that passengers should leave the plane. Not to worry, though, re-boarding would be quick once the offending passenger had deplaned. They made this announcement, passengers quietly filed out, the offending passenger was led quietly off the plane. We all then got back on the plane, a delay of maybe 30 minutes, with no major incident. United, learn some more subtle ways to deal with passengers….”

All I could think was “of course a South African airline would come up with a more subtle approach.” And not just subtle, but creative. An out-of-the box mind at work. It’s probably taking this too far to speculate if there are cultural differences at work, though I don’t doubt there are. I’ll let others chime in for that.

But I would venture a guess that a people who don’t take themselves so seriously, and aren’t historically the strongest ones on the block, have an easier time using the soft power approach.

I bet you that SAA pilot, or the chairman for that matter, didn’t have any fallout from the episode he handled so smoothly. United Airlines on the other side might find itself having to send their chairman to the sacrificial block – mostly for his tone-deaf comments after the event.

kulula airlines plane
Having a sense of humor often helps with the ability to use soft power. People love to laugh!

Raising my glass to the soft power approach to conflict resolution, and to South Africa.

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