Testing the 'rules' of public negotiations

Travelers wait in line at the American Airlines ticket counter at Miami International Airport on September 25, 2012 in Miami, Florida.

American Airlines says things are getting back to normal after a month in which its on-time performance dropped to 59 percent, that's more than 20 percent below its rivals.

The airline has blamed its pilots, who are unhappy with new pay and work rules, for purposefully forcing delays and cancellations in protest. But now, the company's CEO says the carrier can work through the dispute.

Sheila Heen, a conflict resolution adviser who lectures at Harvard Law School, says the pilots' tactics may be working, "the pilots are actually doing a reasonably good job of bringing other players into the negotiation by saying, 'look, other people here are on our side, and those other people also have decision making power because they can choose to fly with someone else.'"

The strategy, though, is high risk as passenger patience and support could run thin, "the public may backlash," says Heen, "you can see that in the [NFL] ref situation."

With the recent flurry of highly publicized labor disputes -- NFL refs, American Airlines pilots, South African miners -- Heen says the key takeaway for her has been allowing the other side enough room for a "way out" to avoid huge downside losses.

About the author

Jeremy Hobson is host of Marketplace Morning Report, where he looks at business news from a global perspective to prepare listeners for the day ahead.

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