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Given the unshakable image of a bloodied customer being dragged unwillingly off a plane, it’s almost impossible to believe there is an increase in customer satisfaction with airlines. And yet, according to the 2017 version of the annual North America Airline Satisfaction Study by J.D. Power, lower fares, better on-time performance, fewer lost bags, and the lowest bump rate ever recorded have indeed contributed to an increase in customer satisfaction with North American airlines between April 2016 and March 2017.
Despite this glimmer of hope, every week we continue to read shocking stories – some recent, some dredged up from the past – of passengers being treated poorly by airline staff and, yes, of passengers treating each other and airline staff poorly. It is becoming increasingly more stressful to fly, and that is evident in the increase in bad behavior by passengers and airline employees on and off the plane as emotions become frayed and people snap.
Airlines acts of kindness exist amid the misdeeds
Because we do fly a lot, and talk with so many other passengers and frequent travelers, we think it is worth pointing out there is another side to the story: Despite the avalanche of news regarding despicable behavior by some airline employees and by some passengers, there are always two sides. We would like to humbly point out that airline acts of kindness can and do happen, on an almost daily yet too often unreported manner.
Of course, it is important to realize that even though things are improving, airlines still rank at the bottom level of most service industries tracked by J.D. Power, much lower than North American rental car companies or hotels. So there is still a lot of work to do. And it won’t get any easier. Airline travel can be immensely stressful these days with increased restrictions, more security, fewer perks, and cramped seating.
But we also believe that things will only improve if we all work to improve our patience and kindness with each other and with staff. That means just as ardently, publicly and quickly pointing out, airline good deeds and acts of kindness just as has become the trend for the misdeeds. To that end, here are several stories of airline good deeds and acts of kindness. We encourage you to share yours too.
United Airlines gets my sister by our dying father’s side in 2012
My father was on his deathbed. The family knew this, we just didn’t know if it would be a few days or a few weeks, as is true in these cases. My sister was scheduled to take her daughter to the East Coast to tour colleges and I told her to go, partly because my dad had always said – and I quote – “Life is for the living.”
Nevertheless, my father continued his battle for the entire week she was gone, only starting to fully slip away the night before she was to come back. She purchased Wi-Fi on the United flight home to stay in touch and things didn’t look good for him – we emailed the entire flight. Her plan was to land in San Francisco, per her itinerary, then drive to her home nearly two hours away. Then, since it would be quite late, she would drive to my parents’ hometown the next morning – another three hours.
As an experienced flyer, I was on the Internet researching flights and arrivals. I found that her United flight from the East Coast was scheduled to arrive a little early and was landing in San Francisco only a couple of gates down from where a flight would be taking off about 30-35 minutes later to my parents’ hometown. And it showed one seat was open. That would get her to his side by about 7 p.m. that evening instead of 16+ hours later.
I immediately got on the phone to United, initially got an agent who told me she could not do this because the connection was too tight, even after I explained the situation. I asked for a supervisor and got George McCahey in Chicago. I again explained the situation and told him what I had found. He confirmed the logistics. I asked if it were possible to get her on that connecting United flight. He asked if it would be just her and not her husband or daughter and verified she would not wait for her baggage. I said, “Yes.” He did some clicking about, and I held my credit card ready. The agent then said, OK, it’s done, just tell her to get there as fast as she can.
I said, OK, how much do I owe you? He said, nothing, I have just added the flight to her itinerary based on “the situation.” No fees, zero. I was shocked but grateful. He was an angel and that was an act of kindness that allowed my sister to say good-bye, as we all had done already. As soon as she arrived my father seemed to rest more easily, simply going to sleep “forever” the next afternoon.
Be kind and understanding, the result may surprise, as my husband learned
This is a story my husband tells often. He arrived early to the airport after being gone for nearly a week in 2011, and he went to what was then the Red Carpet Club (now United Club) to see about getting on an earlier flight. He’d been told at check-in the earlier flights showed full, but to keep checking. He stood in line, listening to a very well-dressed, apparently self-important man berating the woman at the desk about how he needed to get to a meeting, the airline was the worst he’d encountered, he had more status than she could imagine and he could buy the airline, and that she wasn’t doing enough to get him where he wanted to go. In the face of this verbal onslaught, she just kept saying, “I’m sorry sir, but the flight leaving in an hour is full. You are on the flight that departs in 5 hours. I can confirm that. “ And he stormed off muttering all kinds of nastiness under his breath.
My husband then stepped up to the counter, smiled, and said, “I’m sorry you have to deal with such anger. That has to be difficult for you.” She smiled. “I was going to ask about getting on an earlier flight, to get home to my wife – I’ve been gone a long time and wanted to get home to surprise her. But you just told that gentleman the flight I wanted was full. So, thanks. I’ll just hang out until the next flight departs” (the one in five hours).
She smiled again and said, “Let me check one thing for you.” Fingers flew on the keyboard. A ticket was produced … in first class. “Here you go, the flight’s boarding right now. Kindness gets rewarded.” He then learned the angry man before him was booked in United’s premium economy section on the later flight because of a mistake by his company; he was taking it out on everyone at the airline and had been since he checked his luggage. If he had simply been more polite, and calm, and appreciative, he would likely have been the recipient of a first-class upgrade.
Southwest Airlines good deed when woman’s son was in a coma in 2015
We recently heard about a story involving Southwest Airlines from 2015 where a woman was on a flight that was just pushing off from the gate in Raleigh-Durham to Chicago. Her husband reached the airline and said their son had a serious head injury and was in a coma in Denver. The airline not only called the plane back but also booked her on a flight to Denver – rerouted her luggage, got her lunch, and delivered the luggage. And never asked for a penny.
American Airlines rebooks flight at no fee when friend’s aunt was dying in 2016
In 2016, an elderly woman I was friends with and who had no family in the area, was on her deathbed. Her niece – her closest relative, and who lived Back East – was scheduled to come for a visit a week later. I told her she could not wait. It did not look good. She had to come now.
Not only did American Airlines rebook the flight for her for the next day, it did not charge her another dime. (For the record, the local Holiday Inn Express also rebooked her room, which was a non-refundable advance purchase, and did not charge her any extra fees.) Her aunt did pass, with both of us holding her hands, just 36 hours after the niece’s arrival. In fact, the aunt became relatively lucid again when her niece arrived, allowing them to communicate a bit, before the woman returned to her non-verbal state and slipped away.
Southwest Airlines takes customer at their word that son has died
Another tale related by travel consumer advocate Christopher Elliot from 2013 also involved Southwest Airlines: A couple got word their adult son had died two days before they were to fly from San Jose, Calif., to Portland, Ore. Not only did the airline rebook their ticket to a later date with no extra fees or additional charges. But it did so without waiting for a death certificate, as usually required. To top all that, the couple received a sympathy card from the agent they dealt with. Can we call this one amazing good deed?
Become advocates for celebrating acts of kindness
No airline is perfect. No person is perfect. We need to stop and breathe and remember that we are all human. Flyers need to remember this when dealing with airline employees – check-in personnel, gate personnel, and flight attendants. And, too, airline employees need to remember this when dealing with customers. Be nice, empathize, treat each other as you want to be treated.
As Elliot said in his July 2013 story about the San Jose couple: “I believe there’s only one way for us to make sure more airline employees rise to the occasion and do more than the bare minimum for regular passengers…. We can tell everyone when it happens, like they did. The more these good deeds are recognized and celebrated, the better the chance of a repeat performance.”
Airline good deeds do happen – frequently and often unnoticed except by a very few. It is too easy to forget this in our rush to jump into the fray when we witness horrible actions, often using our smartphones to record the next viral video. We need to become advocates of applauding and celebrating acts of kindness and good deeds whenever and wherever they occur.
I wrote a letter to United describing my experience and applauding the agent, nominating him for an award. And that is something we often do at HI Travel Tales. But we all clearly need to do more. Next time, as we have done here, we need to publicly recognize goodness. We’d ask more of you to do the same too.