An Airport Mixup and a Text from Mom Helped Me Ask for What I Wanted

On a recent three-day weekend, I flew from Portland, Ore. to Oakland, Calif. to visit a friend I hadn’t seen in a couple of years. We were both motivated to keep costs down, so we cooked at home and went on walks. The entire trip, including my ticket, was $300.

As I was waiting at the gate to fly home, an airline rep got on the intercom and announced that the flight was overbooked. She offered a $300 travel voucher to travelers willing to take a flight just two hours later. I knew that I’d be flying home for the holidays, so I decided that it was well worth the wait to essentially recoup my costs for the weekend. I volunteered and sat back down, content with a $300 voucher and a ticket on the next flight back to Portland.

But somehow in the confusion, the agent rebooked me to Seattle. By the time my original plane was rolling away from the gate and I was explaining that I didn’t want to go to Seattle, there were no more seats on the flight for which I volunteered. I was put on a standby list for the booked flight and on the list for another later flight, also booked. They also offered to fly me to Seattle where I could try to get on a plane to Portland, or to stay in a hotel and fly in the morning, but I just wanted to get home.

The gate agents were visibly stressed, so I waited and texted my best friend, my roommate, and my mom with the little battery I had left on my phone. My best friend provided me with the opportunity to gossip about my roommate and my trip while my mom texted me advice about the situation, which annoyed me. The agent came up to me and apologized for the mistake, saying she’d see if she could give me more benefits for the inconvenience. My mom told me to ask for more money on my travel voucher, but I wasn’t quite comfortable doing that.

It’s pretty common knowledge that women are taught to nurture relationships in lieu of being taught to aggressively negotiate on our own behalf. We lose out when it comes to salary negotiations. Despite all the interviews I’ve done, research I’ve read about the pay gap, and books about negotiation and the gender divide, I still find myself cripplingly inarticulate when it comes to asking directly for what I want.

I waited in front of the gate for the other volunteers to get their tickets rebooked. Watching their situations play out, I thought about how the men in my life take advantage of my willingness to compromise my needs and desires in order to accommodate their insecurities and immaturity. I thought about how I will have to negotiate with my boss about my job and salary in the very near future.

And then I explained to the agent that the late night flight, if I could even get on it, would mean another six hours at the airport, plus an arrival in Portland after the MAX, Portland’s public train system, closed. She immediately offered me $20 in food vouchers for dinner, which I accepted. I asked if I could be moved to the top of the standby list for the next available flight and explained once again that I didn’t want to arrive after public transit stopped running. They told me the standby list can’t be rigged. While the agents were busy clicking away at their consoles, I looked down at my phone and saw one of my mom’s texts again: “Ask for cab fare.”

So I did. It turns out they couldn’t issue a fare voucher for a taxi at a different airport, but they did give me another $10 in food vouchers. Regardless, I was proud of myself; I had directly asked, “Can I get money for a taxi?” I stopped explaining my situation and started asking for what I wanted. I smiled and thanked them sincerely. As I was walking away, the agent blurted out, “Wait! Actually, there may be a way we can do this.”

She pulled up my traveler info and started annotating my entry. She explained in five lines of shorthand that I was bumped by her error and that upon arrival in Portland after midnight, the customer service agents from the airline should issue me a travel voucher. I was delighted.

I spent my food money on chicken strips, bottled water, a slice of cheesecake, and a large hot cocoa. The food was exactly the quality you’d expect in an airport, which ruined my “negotiator’s high” and made me feel fat. I walked around the terminal and meandered over to that flight I had originally volunteered for and check out the standby list.

I went over to the gate agent to ask about the standby list. Feeling I had nothing to lose, I explained everything that happened and asked what he thought my chances were of getting on. He said it wasn’t likely, but we made small talk about moving; he had just relocated to San Francisco with his boyfriend. He asked me if I was flying into Portland for a meeting the next day and I joked, “No, but Girltopia at C.C. Slaughter’s is tomorrow night!”

Two hours after the scheduled departure time, the original flight to Portland was still in the gate due to weather, and I was dead last on the standby list. I was restless and annoyed at being in the airport, sure that I had hours to go even if the next flight didn’t get delayed, too.

I was paged on the intercom. They found a seat for me on that original flight.

I thanked the gate attendant as I gave him my ticket and he said, “Well, my coworker said you were just so nice to him that we had to find you a seat on this plane.” Asking for things certainly seemed to be paying off. Why hadn’t I been doing this my whole life?

I arrived in Portland around 10:30 p.m. As I was walking over to catch the MAX, it occurred to me that the agents in Portland would still have my taxi fare request on file. I walked up to the nearest airline representative and explained that the SFO agents had put in a request on my file. He looked it up and said it was really out of the ordinary to have a fare request from another airport, but that it might be something he could do. As we waited for the computer to load my information, we made small talk about the weather. Then we made small talk about small talk about the weather, which I’ve discovered is the formula for nearly all conversations in Portland. He seemed happy that someone was willing to talk to him about something other than flight delays.

In the end, I made it onto the flight I volunteered for with a full belly and $300 dollars towards my next flight. I even got a taxi from the airport—something I don’t think I’ve ever actually done before. I’d originally planned to get home at 8 p.m.—I managed to get there at 11 p.m. All it took was an extra three hours and a mostly pain-free lesson in learning to ask for what I want.

 

Liz Rush is an amateur cartoonist who recently relocated to Portland, Oregon. She makes $15/hour and has $7,353 left to pay on her student loan. Her go-to karaoke song is “Mr. Roboto” by Styx.

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23 Comments / Post A Comment

madrassoup (#929)

Good for you! I love stories like these. Although the lesson is also, obviously, that it helps to be nice and human. That made such a huge difference for you, and it’s something that is important for women to remember when it comes to negotiating. We don’t necessarily have to “act like men” (in the stereotypical sense of course) to get things done.

Sounds like you got what you wanted through a combination of asking for it AND nurturing relationships! I bet a lot of asshole business travelin’ dudes could learn a lot from you.

loren smith (#2,300)

@cuminafterall Why is there so much hate on this site for business travellers? My husband is away on business right now, and you know what? He is a really decent human being, even if he does have an expense account and a work-issued Blackberry. Have you really never seen any other asshole travellers? I know that the most inconsiderate ones I see are usually parents.

@loren smith Asshole business travelin’ dudes are generally assholes through temperament/conviction and business travelers through circumstance. Maybe your husband is nice, I’ve never met him. But the people I used to book travel for were asses to me in the office, and I don’t think they turned magically nice when they got to the airport.

loren smith (#2,300)

@cuminafterall So maybe it’s more of an assholes v normal people thing? I don’t see what occupation has to do with it.

Worker Parasite (#2,292)

@cuminafterall As a business traveller who tries to be a reasonable human being, I think it’s more likely that asshole entitled parents could learn the lesson here. There’s something about travel that seems to bring the worst out in people, especially parents shrieking at gate agents because their flight’s been delayed by 10 minutes.

If you travel regularly you soon learn that being an asshole to the airline people gets you nothing – but if you’re nice you regularly get bumped to first class. I’ve taken 100+ flights this year and have yet to see anyone that looked like a business traveller acting inappropriately, but every trip to the airport I see at least one other person acting like an ass.

Dancercise (#94)

I love this so much.

xxAnniexx (#1,137)

My mom has also tried to instill this crazy notion that you need to ask for the things you want (whaaat, mom!). Like madrassoup and cuminafterall said, I’m glad the lesson learned here was the important of both asking for things and not being a dick while doing so.

This is a great example of how being nice to airline employees is in your best interest! (Be nice to everyone, of course.)

But… standby lists absolutely can be manipulated. The usual reasons are airline status, fare class, or travel disruptions. I’ve been bumped to number one because, even on a cheap ticket without status, my incoming flight was delayed, etc etc. I probably would have pushed back a little on that front… and then been put on the bottom of the list as a consequence.

Anyway. Lovely to see niceness working. And, yes, ask for things!

Megoon (#328)

@angry little raincloud My friend got bumped to number one on the standby list with twenty minutes to go before the flight (his original connection had been cancelled) partially because of his airline status – which is high – and because he slipped the gate agent $20. Bribery!

EM (#1,012)

This was a great story. I agree it’s so hard to get out of the conditioning not just to ask for what you want but for what you are entitled to receive. I recently spent like two hours agonizing about whether to submit a $35 cab receipt for a work-related trip, because while I know that my travel costs are supposed to be covered, it felt embarrassing and greedy to ask to be reimbursed for an amount like that.

bridgett (#1,989)

@Michelle So did you submit the receipt?

great story. thank you for sharing

PersonAlly811 (#2,632)

Love, love, lovvvve this. I used to work retail (customer service), and people who made clear what they wanted AND did it kindly were rare and precious and made my day! It’s sad that people err on the side of being terrible assholes to get what they want, because it wears on the person providing the service/product/etc…

But at least now I know: be nice to the person on the other side of the counter, because you’re likely going to be the only person to be nice to them all day.

Ellie (#62)

This is great. I’m a big fan of asking for what you want but it is so hard to do. I asked for a major raise recently which was one of the most nervewracking experiences ever (I asked for $9 more an hour and only got $2 more, but them’s the breaks). I finally talked myself into it by telling myself that I was being SEXIST by not asking for a lot because men don’t have the same trouble negotiating (generally speaking).

Other anecdote – I always fly Southwest and I’m really good and diligent about checking in early to get a good boarding number but sometimes it’s just impossible. I am very claustrophobic/scared of flying and it’s important to me to have an aisle seat in the back for this reason, so I finally started explaining my situation to the gate workers last year, and I can get early “medical boarding.” They’re always nice about it. I have the same thing in movie theaters and I used to be too embarrassed to ask whoever I was with if we could sit on the edge, and I finally started, you know, saying “I’m claustrophobic can we sit on the edge.”

shannowhamo (#845)

@Ellie THis off topic but how did you go about asking for such a major raise? My husband got some new responsibilites at work 9 months ago and they gave him a $1 raise at the time but it’s becoming clear that he really deserves something much more substantial but neither of us have any experience with this (I just get set step increases at work and his job is for a family run company and is kinda nutty.)

I think the crucial part of this is figuring out exactly what you want, so good on your mama for leading you in the right direction. Gate agents, bank tellers, insurance adjusters, anyone in customer service, they generally can’t and won’t give you what you don’t ask for, and often people don’t know what exactly they’re entitled to. And I think it’s ok to ask that exactly: “What am I entitled to for this inconvenience?” But generally, just figure out exactly what you need to make you feel better about this issue and ask for it. That potential “no” isn’t rejection; it’s negotiation.

I’d like to think that you’re always going to catch more flies with honey (almost typed get more honey with sugar – sometimes I think I inherited my malapropism tendencies), and I have never personally treated a customer service agent with anything but polite but business-like respect, and firmly recommend treating everyone with respect, but honestly, sometimes it seems like the screamers get sorted out more quickly.

I just keep rolling over the phrase “and made me to feel fat” in my mind. Over, and over again. I don’t know why, but I love it.

“and made me to feel fat… and made me to feel fat… and made me to feel fat…”

klemay (#1,755)

I have this weird anxiety about seeming rude or entitled to people in service positions, so this “asking for what you want” business is TORTURE for me.

Logically, I know that I may never even see these people again so I shouldn’t care what they think as long as I’m nice to them but I JUST WANT PEOPLE TO LIKE ME, even if they’re technically being paid to be nice to me.

@klemay So much YES. I’m ridiculously deferential to, well, pretty much any other human being in my vicinity.

This is the BEST story. Good for you!

In my experience, when an airline (or a hotel, or a car rental place… this seems endemic in travel actually?) screws something up for you, their default response is “Sorry, there’s nothing we can do.” However, usually when you push back, there turns out to be something they can in fact do, it might just be a bit unusual and/or require effort.

I have noticed this in particular when things are overbooked. I have on multiple occasions shown up at a hotel and been told that despite my having a reservation, they were overbooked and didn’t have a room for me. LITERALLY EVERY TIME once I kicked up a fuss they mysteriously were able to find me a room. I suspect that what happens is that once they realize they are going to be overbooked for the night they use that line on EVERYONE, and whoever doesn’t rock the boat gets bumped.

whimseywisp (#220)

As an airline employee, I can’t emphasize enough how much your attitude impacts what you get out of situations like this. We have a lot of wiggle room to help out a passenger in a difficult situation, and if you’re friendly and don’t ask for things that are crazy-unreasonable, you will usually be accomodated! I’m glad that everything went alright, and I am especially glad that you learned how to ask for what you want :).

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