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Wait Until You Know the Other Side of the Story

by Yonason Goldson

On the surface, what follows is a classic story of excess, indulgence, and entitlement.

In 1987, Steven Rothstein plunked down $250,000 for an AAirpass – a VIP membership that gave him unlimited first-class air travel on American Airlines. Two years later, he forked over another $150,000 for a companion pass.

Mr. Rothstein had always loved to fly. Now his predilection grew into a hobby and, eventually, into a lifestyle. In the month of July 2008, for example, he flew 18 times to destinations across the country and Europe. When flying alone, he booked a companion ticket so he could have an empty seat beside him.

In November of the same year, he handed his boarding pass to the gate agent at Chicago O’Hare one day as he prepared to board his flight to London. The agent handed him back a letter informing him that American had revoked his pass for fraudulent use. His free flying days were permanently grounded.
If you’re like me, you probably feel little sympathy for Steven Rothstein. But an article published by his daughter in the Guardian shines a light on the other side of the story.

UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES
When American Airlines introduced the AAirpass in 1981, the company saw it as a cash cow. Business was brisk, interest rates were sky-high, and there were always open seats on commercial flights. The Airlines added a pro forma “fraudulent use” clause to the user agreement, but failed to delineate what constituted fraud.

In fact, American provided AAirpass holders with elite booking agents, who willingly booked empty seats for fictitious flying companions. Mr. Rothstein, along with many others, may have exploited loopholes, but they did so with the full knowledge and cooperation of airline representatives. Everything was above board.

By 2007, however, business was not nearly so good. In fact, American was only four years away from filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In an attempt to stop the bleeding, the airline embarked on a campaign to eliminate “fraud.” The following year, airline investigators determined that Steven Rothstein was one of those who had broken the spirit, if not the letter, of the agreement.

OPTICS
Even if Mr. Rothstein had overused his privileges, why did the Airline allow Mr. Rothstein to book his ticket, check his luggage, and make his way to the gate with his travel companion before informing him that his travel rights had been revoked? Did they have to refuse to deplane his luggage and then refuse him help in retrieving it from London? Could the company not have warned him that his use of the system was considered a violation of the agreement and given him the opportunity to curtail his travel habits?

Apparently, Airline officials did draft such a letter but, for reasons that are unclear, never sent it.

There’s yet another layer to the story. In 2002, Mr. Rothstein’s teenage son Josh was killed. A driver swerved onto the sidewalk to avoid another car, and Josh was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Rather than the psychiatrist’s couch, travel became a form of therapy. Mr. Rothstein escaped the reminders of his son at home by seeking distant destinations. He found comfort in the many familiar faces of flight agents and attendants who had come to know him, and he drew solace from performing random acts of kindness by sharing his companion pass with strangers he met in the airport.

It may still have been a manipulation of the system, but it was not nearly as self-serving as it might seem.

TWO SIDES OF THE SCALE
The story of Steven Rothstein offers an opportunity for valuable reflection. When reassessing antiquated programs and evaluating customer behavior, we should consider the complexity of judgment:

1. Few stories are black and white. Instead of rushing to judgment, we have an obligation to make sure we see the whole story from every side so we don’t jump to incorrect or incomplete conclusions.

2. Even if we believe someone has taken advantage of us, that doesn’t give us carte blanche to exact our pound of flesh. Look for ways to give the benefit of the doubt. Seek compromise solutions that account for others’ sensitivities and preserve their dignity.

3. Even if the letter of the law is on your side, consider not only what is legal but what is right, not only what is allowed but what is just.

Rabbi Yonason Goldson works with business leaders to build a culture of ethics that earns trust, sparks loyalty, and limits liability. He’s host of the podcast “Grappling with the Gray,” and his column “The Ethical Lexicon” appears weekly in Fast Company. Visit him at ethicalimperatives.com.
 

Submitted 181 days ago
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