On my worst days, I remain grateful to work for Southwest Airlines. But there are other times that just make me feel I'm simply unworthy to be the lowliest member of a Family of 35,000+ Superstars. One of those moments happened recently, and I just thought I'd share it.
I was headed back to Dallas from a West Coast business trip, was booked on a late-afternoon connection, and noticed there was a onestop, no-change-of-plane flight that would get me home much earlier--and it was still at the gate on a delay. I went to that gate, asked if I could get on, and was told that I could. I asked why the flight was delayed and was told they were holding for connections. Fine, the delay was only 15 minutes--I sprinted down the jetway and found a seat. Ten minutes later, our Operations Agent came onboard and told us all the airplane we were waiting for was on the ground, and we'd be on our way shortly.
Five minutes after that, an obviously harried older couple (which, these days, means a couple MY age....) boarded. The Flight Attendant told them that there were no more seats together, to which the woman replied in a deep Texas twang "Oh, sugar, that's fine, we've been married so long I don't care where he sits." Everyone in earshot chuckled, and the woman took an open seat one row up from me on the aisle, while the Flight Attendant led Hubby to the rear of the cabin. We were underway shortly thereafter.
The lady in front of me leaned over and told "Connection Lady" that she totally understood--after a few decades of marriage, sitting separately on an airplane can be a vacation in itself. Connection Lady laughed and said that at that they were just thrilled to be on the airplane. "We thought we had missed this flight," she said, euphoric, almost giddy. "We had no idea Southwest had held this airplane for us until we landed here."
And then the oddest thing happened. The euphoria in her face turned into tiredness, and I noticed her eyes starting to tear up as she continued, "They didn't even know....it's so very important for us to get back to Texas quickly, because we just found out my mother is dying." Big tears started to roll down her cheeks, and the lady in front of me reached across the aisle and began to pat Connection Lady's hand in support. "If we'd missed this flight, I'd never be able to say goodbye to her...but now at least we have a fighting chance." Her words trailed off into sobs that her clenched hand tried to muffle; the lady in front of me reached into her carry-on bag for Kleenex for them both, and I started feeling incredibly guilty for eavesdropping--and embarrassed that I, too, had teared up big time.
It was a three-hour flight, and I spent most of the next 180 minutes trying not to watch the back of Connection Lady's head. (I was unsuccessful) She would try and sleep but periodically reach up with the Kleenex and wipe her eyes; I could feel her heart breaking one row away. I spent a lot of time thinking about losing my own mom...and wondering what it would have been like had I gotten "the call" when I was thousands of miles away. But one thing she said stayed with me--"they didn't even know." Why had this one flight been held for two people, who were travelling on a family emergency, if nobody "knew?"
So when I got back to work the next day...I started doing a little research. I started by contacting our Customer Service Coordinator who made the call to hold the flight to wait on Connection Lady and her husband. Why did he make the decision to delay the flight? Had someone alerted him that there were some unusual circumstances? Nope, he replied, he always looked for close connections on delayed flights and noticed this itinerary--and knew he could incur a very short delay, accomodate our Customers, and still most likely arrive ontime. So he didn't know....he just did his job, did the right thing, and made an unintended yet huge impact on the lives of two human beings. "This was a very routine part of my job," he told me. (Routine? I so very much don't think so.)
The second call I made was to the station where Connection Lady and husband originated. I spoke to the Customer Service Supervisor who checked them in, as well as the Operations Agent who boarded them. Did they remember anything out of the ordinary? In both cases...not really. C.L. and husband arrived late to check their bags for their flight, but the Customer Service Supervisor remembered joking with them while telling them of the slight delay and told them to "slow down and grab a latte on the way to the gate." The Operations Agent remembered nothing at all out of the ordinary about the couple. Again--they had no idea why these folks were travelling but were calming and supportive nonetheless, just like they are to every other Customer that they come into contact with.
So here I am, having been a totally voyeuristic observer in a human drama that probably happens who-knows-how-many-times each day on Southwest Airlines flights. And after digging into it a little, I find out that the right thing happened not because Connection Lady and hubby told the agents that they were traveling to say goodbye to a dying mother--but because it was just the right thing to do. Being in Schedule Planning, I realize full well that we can't hold for late inbound connections in each case, but in this instance, the result of doing the right thing was, perhaps, giving a daughter her last chance to tell her dying mother that she loved her. And had I not overheard the story, no one at Southwest would have been any the wiser.
I want you guys to know this story for two reasons. One, Southwest has an operating strategy that empowers my amazing Colleagues in the field to make decisions to DO THE RIGHT THING without waiting on enormous bureaucracies or decision trees to kick in. Obviously we can't fix every problem, but we try to make everything as whole as we can at the point of primary contact.
And two--and this is directed to my Southwest Family in Ground Operations, Dispatch, and CSC....so many times you guys make decisions like this just because you see an easy, painless fix, and just do it. Nobody asks you to--no one ever tells you you can--you just do it. Just in case you ever wondered if you ever make a difference in the lives of our Customers, I wanted to make sure you know:
Thanks for reading this, blogosphere....and I wish Connection Lady and her family peace, love, and good memories.