My dad used to tell me that I could either learn my life lessons the easy way with humility or learn them the hard way … and the easy way was well … easier. I never fully understood the wisdom of his words until I was an adult in the Orlando airport.
As the owner of a customer service training company, I was constantly flying from one city to the next either attending a seminar, speaking at a seminar or calling on a customer. I was on an airplane virtually every day of the year. During one particular month, I noticed that on three separate occasions someone had been sitting in my seat when I boarded the airplane. Looking at them politely, I would hold out my ticket and say, “I’m sorry, but I think you’re in my seat.”
Rather than look at their ticket, they would say, “You’re mistaken. This is my seat.” With that, I would reluctantly call the stewardess who would look at our tickets and tell the squatter to move to their assigned seat. With a huff they would remove themselves and act as if I shot their dog. It was humiliating.
On one particular trip I had a bad feeling. It wasn’t the kind of feeling you get when you think the plane is going to plummet to earth in a fiery ball of molten metal, I get that feeling all the time. Instead I had this hideous fear that a 75-year-old invalid with an oxygen tank, a lap dog and a medical escort was going to be slumped unconscious in my seat with an I.V. in her arm.
“Ladies and gentleman,” announced the voice over the P.A., “We’re ready to board the plane. I would like to invite our first class passengers and frequent fliers to be seated first.”
Being a frequent flyer I made sure I was the first passenger on the plane. There was my seat, 10A, completely void of human presence. This was too easy. Something wasn’t right. Every muscle in my body tensed for what was to come, but what was it?
I sat down and studied my ticket stub carefully. Seat 10A, flight 176, Orlando to Atlanta, departs 5:15 PM. Over and over I read and memorized my ticket stub to prepare for the challenge that I knew was imminent. Seat 10A, flight 176, Orlando to Atlanta, departs 5:15 PM. I was ready and slipped the ticket stub into my shirt pocket.
The plane was full to capacity. The stewardess addressed the passengers and said, ”We’re waiting for one last passenger who will be with us momentarily. Please fasten your seat belts so we can depart immediately upon their arrival.”
I quickly scanned the plane and noticed that every seat had been taken. The stage was set for the biggest challenge of my life and I was ready for it.
A man in his late 60’s entered the airplane. He was laden with luggage and out of breath. As he turned to walk down the isle, 275 passengers exploded with applause as though their savior had just appeared ready to lead them to the promised land.
He took two steps into the coach section, stopped, looked directly at me and said in a very polite voice, “I’m sorry, but I believe you’re sitting in my seat. 10A?” Completely confident and ready for the challenge I looked him in the eye and with a tone of confidence that bordered on arrogance said, “I’m so sorry. You must be mistaken. I’m in 10A.”
“May I see your ticket?” he asked.
“It’s not necessary.” I replied. “I know for a fact that I’m assigned to this seat.”
Immediately two-dozen frustrated passengers who were anxious to get home circled us with their eyes, like teenagers anticipating a fight on the playground. What could he do? Possession is 90% of the law and he knew it. If he was going to dethrone me he was in for the fight of his life. I was in the right seat on the right plane leaving at the right time to the right city and I knew it.
Anxious to depart, the stewardess came running down the isle to sort out the problem. “May I see both of your tickets please?” She asked. The mood of the passengers quickly changed from bad to worse. They wanted to get home and they didn’t care who was left behind.
The next ten seconds were the longest ten seconds of my life. What unraveled next was the most frightening and powerful demonstration of mob persuasion I had ever seen. I learned more about the power of likability in the time it takes to tie your shoes than I learned in the 37 years of my existence.
As the stewardess scanned the tickets, my adversary winked at me and asked the person across the isle if he could lean on her seat in order to catch his breath. With that one move he solicited the sympathy of everyone on the plane and simultaneously positioned me as an uncaring whippersnapper who didn’t respect his elders. Then he looked up and addressed the entire 270 passengers on the plane who had been watching our interchange closely.
“Ladies and gentleman,” he said in a charming Brett Butler style Southern voice, “I’m so sorry for your inconvenience. There seems to be some confusion on our seating assignment. I know this wonderful woman will have us straightened out in just a moment. Thank you so much for your patience.”
There was not so much as a glimmer of anger or malice in his voice. He showed nothing but pure compassion for everyone on the plane, including me. Oh yes, he was good. He was very good!
I could feel the mood of every single passenger on that plane change instantly. They were no longer ambivalent as to who they wanted to fly home with and who they wanted tossed off the plane, and it didn’t seem to matter that I was right and had the ticket to prove it.
Just then the stewardess looked up and said in the voice of a ring announcer for everyone to hear. “Mr. Sommers, you are in-fact in seat 10A, on flight 176 that departs from Orlando to Atlanta at 5:15 PM.
“Yes.” I said while pumping my fist in the air to a bombardment of boos and hisses from those seated around me.
“However,” she continued, “Your flight does not leave until tomorrow.”
With that the entire plane erupted into wild applause and laughter as I gathered my belongings for what seemed to be a very long and humiliating exit.
One more life lesson learned the hard way. I think I’m finally starting to get it dad.