The most important trips aren’t about getting somewhere. They’re about getting to someone. (via Elliott.org)
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.
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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.
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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 overestimate 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.
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