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Showing Dignity at Airline Ticket Counter

In an article for Leadership journal, Gordon MacDonald shares the story of a friend who was caught in the middle of a nasty church conflict that had spun out of control. When MacDonald asked his friend how the situation had been resolved, his friend told him that he had been confronted with a piercing piece of advice: "Someone has to show a little dignity in this thing. It really should start with you." MacDonald's friend took the wisdom to heart, and it worked wonders in the situation. MacDonald took the wisdom to heart himself and had the opportunity to apply it when caught in the middle of an airport fiasco.

MacDonald was scheduled to fly from Boston's Logan Airport to Chicago, but the boarding-pass attendant realized that he was scheduled to fly not out of Boston, but Manchester, New Hampshire. MacDonald asked whether she could solve the problem for him. She could—but for an extra $360.

MacDonald was shocked. "I'm a 100k customer on your airline. I give you guys a lot of my business. Can't you just get me on the flight for free as a courtesy?" But the boarding-pass attendant said her hands were tied. MacDonald would have to pay the $360.

The testy situation had reached its decisive moment. Though the problem was a result of MacDonald's incorrect booking, he felt "depreciated, blown off, victimized by a big company that seemed to put a monetary value on every transaction." As he points out in his article, "the ungodly part of me wanted to say something sarcastic (about friendly skies, for example) that would hurt the other person as I felt hurt. Hurting her would help me to feel that I'd hurt the rest of the company—all the way up to the CEO. Perhaps she'd call and tell him how I felt so that his day would be ruined like mine was about to be ruined."

But then he remembered the advice his friend had been given: "Someone has to show a little dignity in this thing. It really should start with you."

MacDonald swallowed his pride and applied the advice to the situation at hand. He writes about what happened next:

I said to the boarding-pass lady, "Before I pay you the $360, let me say one more thing. Six weeks ago I came here to take a flight to the West Coast and discovered that the airline had cancelled the flight and hadn't told me. They said they were sorry, and I forgave them.
"Then two weeks later, on a flight to Europe, the airline lost my luggage (for two days). They said they were really, really sorry. And, again, I forgave them.
"Last week, on a third flight, they got me to my destination two hours late. Your people fell all over themselves saying how sorry they were about the delays. And you know what? I forgave them again. Now here I am—fourth time in six weeks—wanting to fly with you again. See how forgiving I am?
"But this morning the problem's mine. I forgot that I scheduled myself out of the other airport. And I am really, really sorry that I made this terrible mistake.
"You guys have said 'sorry' to me three times in the last six weeks, and, each time I have forgiven you. Now I would like to say 'sorry' to you and ask you to forgive me and put me on that flight without charging me the $360. You have three 'sorries,' and now I'm asking for one. Does that make any sense to you?"
The boarding-pass lady took her own time-out and considered my idea and then said, "It really does make sense to me. Let me see what I can do."
She typed and typed and typed into her computer—as if she was writing a novella—and then looked up with a smile. "We can do this," she said. Two minutes later I was off to the gate with my boarding pass.
That morning dignity won. The airline forgave me. The skies were indeed friendly. I didn't have to pay an extra $360.

MacDonald offers these closing thoughts: "This increasingly crowded, noisy world is generating more and more of these kinds of moments where no one is really doing something bad … just stupid (me, in this case). But because our human dignity is eroded by these constant clashes, even our innocent mistakes point to the possibility for hateful exchanges and vengeful acts. You have to keep alert lest you get sucked into saying and doing things that you'll regret an hour later."

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