In operating an airline, we spend a great deal of time trying to identify new markets. While the overwhelming majority of those markets are local, on select occasions we’ve had the opportunity to explore foreign markets that were in need of air service. This experience highlighted the fact that foreign opportunities need to be approached with caution and with a full understanding of cultural differences. Keep an open mind, realistic of your ability to successfully operate in a market where your knowledge of the local way of life may be lacking.
One such occasion brought our team to a prosperous and rapidly growing region south of the border. This area was in the midst of an economic boom and was in dire need for air service to facilitate the US-based companies doing business in the area. As the area didn’t have scheduled flights serving the market, businesses were forcing their managers to drive significant distances or travel from alternate, far-away locations.
The tour took us through several remote and disconnected areas. Luckily, we were chaperoned by a local industrial conglomerate and the tour was made possible through the use of their private aircraft. It was on one of the last legs of this journey where cultural differences, and how they relate to business, came to light.
As we landed at our last foreign destination we were greeted by airport security. The official told us that due to a large sporting event going on in the region that night there was an unusual amount of airport traffic and space on the tarmac was limited. As a result the normal landing and parking fees at the airport had increased substantially.
Luckily, our pilot on the tour was not only an accomplished aviator, but was also familiar with the local area and business practices. He informed the airport official that he had radioed ahead and negotiated the standard landing/parking rates. The official wouldn’t budge. While we were never told the exact amount the airport official was demanding, our pilot informed us it was cheaper for him to fly back to the previous destination and spend the night, returning in the next morning to pick us up, as compared to paying the exaggerated fee. The cost for him to fly back, spend the night, and return would be in the thousands.
In the midst of these negotiations we were forced to leave the airport in order to make our meeting with local officials. Our pilot was left in complete control of the negotiations. When we returned from our meeting later that night, our pilot informed us that he had settled the situation and that we were all free to stay the night in the region. When asked what amount it cost to settle the landing/parking dispute, the pilot informed us that he had negotiated the amount down and that ultimately the official agreed to be paid by way of a sandwich we had left over from the in flight catering.
Having had one of the sandwiches from the in flight catering I know the airport official got the short-end of the stick. The situation highlights the cultural norm centered around intense negotiations. The official was not only expecting resistance to his position, but aware that he would never likely achieve his opening stance.
This is just one of the many the cultural differences start-ups might encounter in foreign environments. As a new company operating outside of our comfort zone, we needed to take a deep look at our level of expertise and assess whether we felt we could realistically operate in such an environment. Did we have the skill, and the tolerance, to negotiate every transaction in the manner the pilot conducted? Would we need to expand our resources and incorporate local officials in order to deal with this “alternate” style of negotiation?