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Southwest Pilot Holds Plane for Murder Victim's Relative

Travelers have plenty of reasons to be angry at the airlines these days. Airlines are piling on ancillary fees, even while flying has become an ordeal, with delays leaving fliers stuck on the tarmac or stranded in airports.

But often overlooked are the airline employees who quietly go out of their way--sometimes against official policy-- to help customers.

Case in point:the Southwest Airlines pilot who recently held a plane at the gate for a man rushing to be with his daughter after her 3-year-old son was murdered. My friend Chris Elliott, travel consumer advocate and reporter, shared this dramatic story on his site,

In an email to Chris, the man's wife explained they had received the tragic news that his 3-year-old grandson (and her step grandson) in Denver had been murdered by their daughter's live-in boyfriend. Her husband, along with his employer, made last minute flight arrangements to get to Denver via Tucson on Southwest. Though he arrived at the airport two hours early, the lines at check-in and security were exceptionally long. She writes,

"Every step of the way, he's on the verge of tears and trying to get assistance from both TSA and Southwest employees to get to his plane on time...

When he was done with security, he grabbed his computer bag, shoes and belt and ran to his terminal in his stocking feet. When he got there, the pilot of his plane and the ticketing agent both said, 'Are you Mark? We held the plane for you and we're so sorry about the loss of your grandson.'

The pilot held the plane that was supposed to take off at 11:50 until 12:02 when my husband got there. As my husband walked down the Jetway with the pilot, he said, 'I can't thank you enough for this.'

The pilot responded with, 'hey 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.'

My husband was able to take his first deep breath of the day."

Stories like this remind us that, every once in awhile, airlines can embrace common sense and humanity... and I'd willing to make a bet that Southwest airlines wasn't late that day either.

When I read this story, I am also reminded of another story I wrote years ago about an airline captain who detoured a plane, making an unscheduled stop so that a passenger could take his very ill, 11-year-old son to the Mayo Clinic. .

Passengers were boarding a Northwest flight, the last flight of the day between Minneapolis and Chicago, when a man approached the pilot, who was standing by the plane door at the jetway. He told the pilot that he was trying to get his sick son to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

The problem, the passenger explained, is that the only way Northwest would fly him there would be to take that flight from Minneapolis to Chicago, overnight in Chicago, and then fly from Chicago to Rochester the next morning.

"I looked at the route map in your inflight magazine," the father said, "and noticed you fly right over Rochester on the way to Chicago. Do you think you could just stop and drop us off?"

The pilot thought about it. Then he called air traffic control and explained the situation. Could they possible route his flight with a stop in Rochester and still get him to Chicago just a little late? After all, it was the last flight of the day and no passengers were connecting to onward flights.

The word from the ATC: Go for it.

By this time all the passengers had boarded, and the captain made this announcement.

"Tonight, we have a very special young passenger on board who very much needs to get to the Mayo clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. I've checked with air traffic control and they assure me we can fly there, make that stop and still get you to Chicago tonight with very little delay. I'd like to ask your permission to make that stop. If you say yes, we go. I'll understand either way."

The passengers unanimously voted to make the stop and applauded when the plane landed in Rochester. The plane made its final destination....10 minutes EARLY.

When one of the passengers told me the story, much like the woman who wrote Chris, I wrote about it in my column. Instead of celebrating the pilot, though, the airline, Northwest, felt compelled to issue a statement saying the pilot had violated policy and that this behavior would not be repeated. The airline (one of its PR people told me) was actually concerned that other passengers might ask for similar favors. But what about championing a pilot who did the right thing? And not a single passenger on his flight thought otherwise.

We need more heroes like this Southwest pilot. It sends the RIGHT message, not the wrong one.

Have you ever had an experience where an airline employee followed his heart--not policy?


Image courtesy of flickr user, StuSeeger

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