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Do You Know What's Important to the Other Party?

Elizabeth Lewis

Sometimes we find brilliant examples of good negotiation behaviour in the most unexpected places. 


A recent article in an online magazine aimed at airline enthusiasts caught my attention as it detailed some wonderfully creative negotiation behaviour 


The story revolved around the ill-fated United Airlines 811 flight which blew a cargo door at 22,000 feet on its way from Honolulu to Auckland in February 1989. Unfortunately, when the cargo door detached (due to faulty wiring) the resulting explosive decompression tore a large hole in the fuselage, sucking out 10 seats from the cabin in the process. Sadly 9 passengers were lost in the incident. However, in a feat of incredible airmanship, the crew went on to land the badly damaged aircraft with only 2 out of 4 engines, saving the lives of the remaining 346 passengers and crew. 


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The article provides some great insight into the subsequent efforts that went in to organising and carrying out the repairs of the Boeing 747 aircraft in Honolulu where it had made the emergency landing. The details around the very first step in this process are what caught my attention... 


Before the repair crew dispatched to Hawaii could even pick up their tools to start the extensive restoration process, there was a major issue – they had nowhere to repair the plane. 


“The first problem was where to work. United didn’t have a hangar at Honolulu, and the airport didn’t have any long-term parking space for the jet. The NTSB had had the aircraft towed onto adjacent Hickam Air Force Base (Hickam shares a runway with HNL) but the Air Force weren’t keen to have it parked there for months while the civilian crew repaired it.” 


How was the issue resolved?  “In the end, the dilemma was solved in a time-honored fashion – barter.” In other words, negotiation saved the day.  


The terms of the deal involved the team working on the plane offering to give the Air Force Base all the scrap metal and parts removed from the plane in exchange for a space on the base to carry out repairs. The Air Force also asked the team to refrain from taking photos and looking around unauthorized areas on the base. 


The Air Force wanted the scrap, so they could carry out tests with their cutting equipment, after which they could then sell the parts and use the proceeds to carry out improvements to their base.  


There are a number of positives to take away from the story in my opinion. These include: 

  • Recognising when to use negotiation: The repair crew were in a real bind. Faced with limited options, they took a constructive approach which was of interest to both parties. Postponing repairs or giving in and not working on the plane were obviously not possible. And persuasion was probably not a viable choice either. 


  • Finding out what was of value to the other party: how this came about is not detailed in the article, but one can surmise that the repair team did a good job when it came to the Prepare and Argue steps of this negotiation. Whether it was done through probing questions, research or by testing assumptions – I can’t say. But the result was that the team managed to find out what was of value to the Air Force. In this instance, not money but scrap metal! And a promise to ‘mind your own business’. 


  • Knowing what you are willing to concede: a concession should be something which is not of great cost to you but is of value to the other party. In this case, the repair team literally nailed it. The scrap metal was something that they no longer needed, and I would guess may have actually incurred cost to dispose of.  A small price to pay to achieve the objective of securing a place in which to carry out repairs to the aircraft. 


Having reached an agreement with Hickham Airforce Base, the repair team then did an incredible job repairing the accident aircraft in less than 6 months! It went on to fly for an additional 15 years – something that may not have been possible if not for some clever and creative negotiation... 

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