“The Art of the Deal”: How my Airport Fiasco Illustrates the Importance of the Free Market

Residency interview season can be tough for a budget-conscious medical student, but it also illustrates why the free market makes everything it touches better for everyone involved.

The Fiasco

Anyone well-acquainted with air travel knows the struggle.  Flights take off and arrive at odd hours of the morning, even when they’re on time.  A 3 hour (!!) TSA line at Newark results in missing your flight (this was before the shutdown, by the way).  For a residency candidate, it’s particularly stressful.  Because your entire future depends upon showing up for the interview, you may find yourself sleeping on the filthy floor of a terminal gate because of a 6 hour delay.  If there’s a flight that can get you there that takes off at 3:20 am, then you take that flight and get to the interview!  It’s also not a typical professional job interview, where the interviewing company pays for your expenses.  As a medical student, you’re footing the bill for *all* of this, including hotels, cars, and flights.  Also, as a medical student, you have no current salary.  Medical students are encouraged to go on 10-15 interviews to ensure they have a residency spot come Match Day (March 15).  Add those numbers up in your head–you’ll realize it’s quite costly!

In one instance on my interview trail, my flight was canceled because of a mechanical failure.  As a result, I spent an hour in line with the other 200ish people who needed to reschedule their flights, and was thankfully booked on one that would still get me to the interview on time.  If you know me, you know I’m very budget-conscious.  I’ve saved cash while on the interview trail by staying with fellow Church members or family, using Uber instead of renting a car whenever possible, and getting rides from friends.  On this particular trip, it was not possible to get a free ride or use Uber/Lyft.  So I rented a car with Hertz, which offered me the best deal online.

To save money, I prepaid online.  When my flight changed, I called Hertz to reschedule my reservation.  Now that my flight was significantly delayed, I would be renting the car for one day instead of two, so I expected to save about half or a little less than half of the money.  (If you want a lesson on how government ruins everything it touches, just check out all the taxes tacked onto your rental car agreement!  Not quite $32/day as advertised, is it?)

I’ve found that when doing anything remotely complicated like rescheduling something, it’s best to talk to a human to avoid being charged twice, or incurring a rescheduling fee. You can negotiate with a human.

The Negotiation

The first human with whom I connected provided nothing but scripted responses to everything I said.  She said that it did not matter that I was only renting the car for one day instead of two.  According to their policies, I would now be charged $179 for the one day, because I booked in a window of “high demand.”  This amount was WAY more than my original prepaid amount!  I did not get irate with this person, but I did say, “Surely you agree this is ridiculous.  I’m renting the car for less time, so I should be charged less, not almost double the original rate!  I know you’re just reading me what the computer is showing you, but is there anything you can do to help me out here?”  She gave me another scripted answer, and stonewalled me.  So I requested to speak with her supervisor.  Like most low-level customer service people, she said, “The supervisor has the same information I do.”  I said, “Yes, but the supervisor also has the authority to make changes and negotiate with customers to retain them so they don’t go to your competitors and you lose their business forever.  I would like to speak with your supervisor, please.”

The second human with whom I connected initially provided the same scripted responses the first person did.  But in the 8 minutes I waited on hold to connect with this supervisor, I did a little research.  I found that one of Hertz’s competitors offered a comparable car for $67 total.  So in the middle of her script where she was reading back to me everything that had already been discussed, I said, “Look, I’m glad you’re well-informed on my situation.  Let me explain where I’m coming from.  I did not miss my flight because I woke up late or lost track of time.  My flight was canceled due to a mechanical failure.  Now I’m renting the car for less time, so I should pay less, but then you inform me that your company is going to charge me more than even the original amount.  I know what your policies are.  I’m asking you, as a human being, to work with me here.  While I was waiting on the phone I found a deal for $67, and I’m ready to click the button and get this car and ask you for a full refund, and you’ll lose my business–maybe forever–unless you can find me a better deal.  Can you do that for me, or do I need to cancel and go to your competitor?”

She asked me to hold, and I waited for about 2 minutes.  She came back and said that she would cancel the original reservation, and then she had the ability to do some magical supervisor thing that would give me the same rate as I originally prepaid, but this time only for 1 day, at a total of $57.  Less than the competitor!  Sold.  Hertz, you have retained me as a customer, and I sing your praises online.

Additionally, I later found out that Southwest rerouted a plane to pick up the 10 of us who were rebooked on this flight, instead of making us wait another day.  How did this happen?  Well, I suppose some magic supervisor thing at the ticket counter.  Plenty of my fellow passengers voluntarily rescheduled for the next day or later that night, but I told the ticket agent at the counter that I had to make a dinner that evening.  That’s why I got to my resident dinner and interview on time.  Throughout the entire experience, Southwest was repeatedly apologetic, professional, and extremely accommodating.

Negotiation is Freedom

Negotiation can save you a lot of money and hassle.  When there is a mix-up, when you receive less-than-satisfactory service, when you need to do Z but the only options online are X and Y, and especially when someone tries to charge you an exorbitant rate, the free market can come to the rescue.  What if there were no competitors, though?  This strips you of your negotiating power.  There would be no incentive to get to your call in 8 minutes or even in 5 hours.  There would be no incentive to do any magical supervisor things for you.  There would be no incentive to retain you as a customer, because you have nowhere to go.

This is what it looks like when the government, instead of the free market, runs things.  When the government over-regulates and over-taxes an area of the market, competitors fail, the tiniest ones going bankrupt or being bought out first.  The largest company survives, sometimes by getting special deals from the government to ensure it doesn’t actually have to abide by free market rules or even all of the government’s excessive regulations and taxes.  You have no negotiating power with such a monstrosity.  They will treat you like a faceless number.  And that’s if the government even allows private companies to continue to exist in that area of the market.

When the government completely takes over an area of the market, things go from bad to worse.  That giant monstrosity may have treated you like a number, but if they seriously harmed you or stole from you, you could at least sue them.  They are still accountable to the government.  When the government is the actual Goliath, there is literally no recourse.  Have you ever seen a police officer pull over another police officer for speeding?  The government only polices itself when the accused and accuser belong to opposing political parties.

The key to freedom is negotiation.  A negotiation is never a one-sided conversation.  Both sides weigh the benefits and costs and come to a mutual contract.  They are beholden to the law (or government) which ensures that they do not cheat each other or violate the principles of the free market by committing fraud.  This protects both parties, and creates an optimal environment in which they can do business.

In every aspect of life, freedom creates the highest standard of living.  When I save money by negotiating, I have that money to spend on other services, rent, or retirement savings.  When billions of people save money by negotiating, billions more could be poured into the market, making business owners as a whole wealthier.  Moreover, businesses are forced to give each customer individualized service, which raises their performance standard.  If many customers negotiate the same individualized service, an industry may even change its standards of practice to best serve its clientele, and society as a whole benefits from these improvements.

Thanks to Hertz and Southwest for letting me negotiate, serving me like a human, and retaining my service.  By negotiating with me, you made me feel like a truly valued customer.  We need more of this in America.

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