Monday, January 17, 2011

The Kindness of Strangers

Have you heard the story about the Southwest pilot who held a plane so a man running late thanks to TSA could see his dying grandson one more time?

It's true. We're 17 days into the new year and already the kindness of strangers has made me cry. Ya, I know I'm a wuss, but trust me, you're going to get misty-eyed too.

Actually, someone once did something similar for me. I never got to say thank you because the internet didn't exist and I didn't have a public forum like Little Merry Sunshine in which to shout my gratitude from the rooftops. I was flying from Washington National to O'Hare early on a Saturday morning for my Grandma Gardner's funeral. My original flight was canceled due to mechanical problems and when United got me on a later flight, they put me in the last row of an overcrowded flight. I hadn't slept more than a couple of hours most of the week because of a huge legal filing we were getting done, and once I got to my seat, I took my first deep breath and all of my emotion over the death of my grandmother came pouring out. To add to my grief and tears, if we landed on time, I had 30 minutes to make it to the funeral and no way to tell my dad, who was picking me up at O'Hare. A passing stewardess asked me what was wrong and upon hearing my story, walked away. She returned a few minutes later telling me to get my purse and follow her. Someone in first class gave me their seat so I could get off the plane as quickly as possible, run through the airport, and make it to the funeral. Wow. Even now, 15 years later, I'm still grateful for that random act of kindness by a stranger.

So maybe that's why I'm especially touched by the Southwest pilot who went above and beyond to make sure a man he didn't know got to see the person he needed to see without worrying about all the places the other passengers wanted to be.

Hero Pilot Pulls Out the Stops to Help Grandpa Reach Funeral: 2011's Most Heartwarming Travel Story?
by William Lee Adams,

The most important trips aren't about getting somewhere. They're about getting to someone. (via

But in an age of mounting airline fees, reduced in-flight services, uncomfortable security pat-downs and multi-day delays caused by erupting volcanoes, it's easy to forget that.

Amid the cries of "I've already paid for my hotel!" and "You need to get me to Atlanta!" anger and inconvenience frequently blind us to the fact that travel is ultimately about people. We also forget that airline employees—bound by big company rules and regulations—get frustrated, too.

Enter Nancy, whose travel triumph, tempered by a great deal of sadness, has turned an unnamed Southwest Airlines pilot into an online hero.

Nancy reads a blog by Christopher Elliott, a consumer advocate and journalist, and wrote to him about her husband's recent ordeal traveling on flights from Los Angeles to Tucson to Denver. Their situation makes complaints about leg room look downright petty.

"Last night, my husband and I got the tragic news that our three-year-old grandson in Denver had been murdered by our daughter's live-in boyfriend," she wrote. "He is being taken off life support tonight at 9 o'clock and his parents have opted for organ donation, which will take place immediately. Over 25 people will receive his gift tonight and many lives will be saved."

So early in the morning, after what must have been a torturous night's sleep, Nancy and her husband arranged for him to fly from Los Angeles, where he was traveling for work, to Tuscon, where he would step off one plane and immediately onto another one headed to Denver. "The ticketing agent was holding back tears throughout the call," Nancy wrote. "I'm actually her step-mother and it's much more important for my husband to be there than for me to be there."

Mourning the loss of his child's child, and no doubt worrying about his grieving daughter, he was likely in no state to travel. Airport stress only compounded his despair. He arrived at LAX two hours before his scheduled flight time, but quickly realized that delays at baggage check and security would keep him from making the flight.

According to Nancy, he struggled to hold back tears as he pleaded with TSA and Southwest Airlines staff to fast-track him through the lines that were moving like molasses. Even though missing his flight could mean missing a final chance to see his grandson, no one seemed to care.

Too much was at stake to simply roll over and cry. When he finally cleared security—several minutes after his flight's planned departure—he grabbed his computer bag, shoes and belt, and ran to his terminal wearing only his socks. The pilot and the gate agent were waiting for him.

“Are you Mark? We held the plane for you and we're so sorry about the loss of your grandson,” the pilot reportedly said. “They can't go anywhere without me and I wasn't going anywhere without you. Now relax. We'll get you there. And again, I'm so sorry.”

It's hard to underestimate the courage of the pilot's decision. The flight, which ultimately departed 12 minutes late, likely had hundreds of passengers rolling their eyes in contempt. And given that any delay has knock-on effects for passengers at the destination airport, his decision placed Southwest at risk of facing the wrath of travelers, and more than a few demands for compensation.

Elliott, who brought the story to the blogosphere's attention, approached Southwest about the story, half expecting the airline to be outraged by a pilot's refusal to push the on-time departure.

Instead, they told him they were "proud" of their pilot, a man who clearly understands that taking a child off life support has consequences that run deeper than a flight taking off late. As Nancy wrote: "My husband was able to take his first deep breath of the day." Hopefully, over time, his daughter can do the same.

1 comment:

  1. What wonderful stories. Glad there are such good people in the world.


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