Are Airlines Finally Getting Nicer Again?

by Laurie Ulster
Originally Published: 

But now we can replace your disapproving, furrowed brow with a smile and maybe even a sigh of relief, because all is not lost in the humanity department when it comes to air travel.

When bad weather forced a Delta flight bound for Atlanta to spend a couple of hours on the runway in Tennessee, the pilot took matters into his own hands and ordered pizza for everybody on the plane.

A good idea catches on quickly; other Delta flights dealing with similar delays also improved passenger morale with the magic of free pizza. Smart.

But being stranded on the runway is merely an inconvenience, which is what makes pizza such an easy fix. What had more impact, kindness-wise, was the amazing behavior of JetBlue when a woman reached out for help. She was flying with her 11-year-old autistic son, who has acute sensory processing issues. The loud noises, crowds, frequent announcements, and mish-mosh of smells makes it all extremely difficult for him, and most airlines are not receptive to pre-boarding when the “child” in question is clearly well over the age of five.

She booked the tickets online, and was happily surprised to find a place in the order to include information about her son’s special needs, something that she’d never seen before. Just to be sure, she called the airline anyway, and was able to get seats far away from the bathroom (to avoid the smell) and was given “silent boarding,” which meant that a gate agent would escort her and her son to the plane even before regular pre-boarding, to minimize his difficulties. They boarded, got her son set up with noise-blocking headphones, and settled in. The flight attendants were especially kind and attentive, and when they got home, the mom wrote a love letter to the airline that has since gone viral.

And this last one’s a tearjerker—and comes from Southwest Airlines, which doesn’t surprise me. I was once in a gigantic airport panicking that I wasn’t going to be able to get my kids and our bags to another terminal in time to make our hastily-booked make-up flight. A Southwest flight attendant approached and asked if I needed help. Even though we weren’t flying Southwest, she helped me with our bags and personally took us all the way to our terminal, then marched right up to tell the gate clerk that we needed help getting through as quickly as possible. I’ll never forget it.

But this one’s even more astounding: Earlier this month, passenger Peggy Uhle was about to fly from Chicago to Columbus when airline personnel found her and told her to call her husband. (She’d already switched off her cell phone.) Her husband broke the news that their son was in a coma in Denver. Southwest staff already knew what was going on and immediately booked her on a new, direct flight to Denver, free of charge. They put her in a private waiting area, rerouted her luggage, let her board first, and handed her a packed lunch to take with her when she got off the plane. Her luggage was delivered for her, and the airline checked in on her to see how her son was doing. (He’s slowly recovering.)

I remember when more airlines were like this. When my grandmother died in 1991, I booked a flight on American Airlines and got what they used to call a “compassion ticket.” Even though I was flying that day, I got a reduced price, and when I arrived at the airport, the ticket agent knew what type of ticket I had and was exceptionally gentle and kind. I remember no such treatment two years ago when my mother was dying and I had to buy a same-day ticket. I already had a flight booked a week later, but I couldn’t get a deal on changing it, and had to pay for a new ticket. They suggested that I might be able to get some money back after the fact if I had a copy of the death certificate, which was a lovely thing to say to a person who was flying across the continent to be at her mother’s side when she died.

So I’m heartened by these stories, and happy to see that at least some airlines are remembering that we are their customers, not their prisoners, and that a little kindness goes a very long way…and makes a customer for life.

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