Sun Tzu’s book, The Art of War, written more than 2,000 years ago is one of the world’s most famous books on strategy. While Tzu was writing for generals in the army, the fundamentals of his wisdom can help you overcome even the most stubborn airline representative.

the art of war cover

Advice from The Art of War can turn you into a negotiating ninja and ultimately a warrior who wins battles without fighting.

“Use Anger to Throw Them Into Disarray.”

A recent study from Stanford University demonstrated that being slightly agitated can help you get your way in negotiations but getting too angry had the opposite effect. Airline personnel see really stressed out people everyday so chances are they you won’t be the first person they’ve seen that day complaining about extreme flight delays. Be firm not crazed.

a little angry

“Cause Division Among Them.”

Don’t attack the person behind the counter – they aren’t who you’re fighting with, it’s the airline you need to deal with. Using confrontational words like “you do this” will only put you in a tense standoff. Rather, hone your stress to improve your travels and get the airline representative to work with you to get your way with the airline. You’re more likely to succeed if the person behind the ticket counter is by your side.

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“…Even if You Are Winning, If You Continue For a Long Time It Will Dull Your Forces…”

While it’s important to be persistent and not to give up, don’t belabor a point into the ground. Doing so can quickly make the person behind the counter regret ever trying to help you in the first place. Any people behind you in line certainly won’t appreciate it either. Get straight to the point and lay everything out as simply as you can to fight the airlines effectively.

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“…Overcome Others’ Forces Without Battle…”

The power of reciprocity is a powerful motivator and you can use it to make your experience at the ticket counter a pleasant and fruitful one. Start off with a simple question or request, then let the representative know they’re doing a good job and you’d like to tell their supervisor. They’ll be more motivated to help you out since this technique makes them feel indebted to you and resistant to being a disappointment.

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“Even Though You Are Competent, Appear to Be Incompetent.”

There’s no need to act like an idiot but sometimes being seemingly ignorant can be to your advantage. Keep your mouth shut if you get the opportunity to hop an earlier flight or get an upgrade later and don’t be a know-it-all. Silence can put subtle pressure on a stubborn airline representative. It’s also not the best idea to volunteer some information (i.e. like when you miss a flight for no good reason).


“Those Who Know When to Fight and When Not to Fight Are Victorious.”

This piece of advice is for those of you who lose you cool easily and argue with everyone – even those staff who are trying to help you. Remember, you want to work with the airline agent and make them feel inclined to help you. Know who and when to put up a good argument is a big part of that. Know when to fight the airlines. A flight that’s an hour late isn’t a good reason to argue and if there’s nothing to gain by complaining – don’t waste your breath.

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“Using Order to Deal with Disorder, Using Calm to Deal with The Clamorous, Is Mastering the Heart.”

Accept the circumstances, come up with a strategy to resolve what you can, and reduce your flight delay stress so that you aren’t a raging maniac when you walk up to the ticket counter. Besides there are at least 3 fun things to do at the airport if your flight gets canceled.

meditation levitation

“Matters Are Dealt with Strictly at Headquarters.”

Go to the top of the command structure as fast as you need to address your concerns. Find someone with the authority to do what you need and keep going up the chain of command as long as you have to.

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“Conflict Without Fighting is the Greatest Victory.”

Use everything to your advantage and find vulnerabilities in the other side. You may need to put a bit of frustration across the counter to resolve whatever issues you may have but you don’t always have to fight tooth and nail. If you travel enough you’ll get plenty of experience complaining at the ticket counter. Look at each instance as an opportunity to refine your skill as a traveling warrior.

[photos by: Emerging Birder, mellyjean, lewishamdreamer, blently, Jeff Bauche, ToniVC, b3ni, Richard Holen]

EDITED [8/27]: You can also see this post on The Consumerist.