M 4
Select Page
Updated: 8 Sep 2021

Competitive Business Conflict Escalation

Competitive Conflict Escalation


This case study shares a story of how irrational competition can cause damage through conflict escalation between competing airline businesses.

Healthy Competition Has Its Place

Competition is clearly a healthy means to increase sales for any business. It’s essential because competition provides a stimulus for a company or organization to prosper and grow. However, does this mean that a company should compete at all costs? The answer, of course, is “no”!

There comes a point when excessive competition may cause serious harm when the losses exceed the gains. Sounds like simple common sense, doesn’t it? Yet, there are many examples of escalated negotiation competition that are unsound in business. Even the big players can be drawn into an irrational escalation that conflicts with their interests. 

Increased Competition

We all use frequent flier miles on our travels. Back in 1981, American Airlines introduced the first frequent-flier program. It was a unique marketing plan. Anyone who flew regularly could redeem their travel miles for rewards. Great stuff!

Taking American Airlines’ lead, all their competitors jumped on the bandwagon and provided a similar frequent-flyers program. To get a leg up on American’s initial advantage, several competitors enhanced what they offered by doubling the air miles. They also offered points for car rentals, hotel accommodation, and other innovative tactics.

When Conflict Gets Out of Control 

The airline businesses continued this escalating negotiation competitive style through the early 1980s as each airline tried to outdo its competitors. In 1987, Delta Airlines offered triple miles to any passenger who charged their tickets on their American Express Card for all of the year of 1988. Analysts took a hard look at what this would actually mean as a cost to the airline industry. They estimated that the airlines combined would end up owing their passengers somewhere between $1.5 and $3 BILLION dollars in free trips!

The airline industry was in quite a quandary now. How could the industry get out of this marketing war that had spiraled out of control? It finally occurred to the airline industry that somebody had to step forward and draw a line to stop the conflict. The total airline debt continued to increase, with estimates placing it as high as $12 billion dollars towards the end of the 1980s. The airline businesses couldn’t stop competing and had to keep matching whomever raised the stakes. Eventually, an announcement was made that the rebate programs would be canceled.

Resolving Conflicts

A similar thing had happened in the US auto industry relating to rebate programs. The other players quickly escalated their rebate offers to potential customers accordingly. It reached a point where the major car manufacturers were selling every single car at a loss.

Finally, the CEO of Chrysler, Lee Iacocca, made a press announcement. He stated that Chrysler would not renew its rebate program when it expired at the end of the year if the other companies followed suit. He also stated that if they didn’t, he would match or exceed their competitors’ rebate programs. Iacocca drew a line in the sand and sent out a strong message to his competitors. The other manufacturers in the business got the message loud and clear.

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 StarsRate this Article
4.5 out of 5 from 2 responses
  • 0
    Sophie on

    Interesting example and analysis.

  • 7
    Abdul on

    I enjoyed reading this good case.

  • Share your Feedback

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *