Southwest Airlines pilot holds plane for murder victim’s family

by Christopher Elliott on January 10, 2011


It’s easy to be an airline industry critic in an era of “no waivers, no favors” and fees on top of fees. It’s easy to paint airlines as heartless corporations that treat us like self-loading cargo.

But every now and then, you hear a story that turns you into an adoring fan. Like Nancy’s story.

Before I continue, I should mention a few things: Nancy is a faithful reader of my elliott.org site, and I agreed to use only her first name because of the brutal nature of the crime and the age of the victim. Second, I’m not an emotional, John Boehner-type, but I can’t read her story without getting a little teary.

So you’ve been warned: Grab a tissue.

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.

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.

This morning, after only a couple hours sleep, my husband and I began to make all arrangements to get him to Denver to be with our daughter. He is currently on business in LA and is flying Southwest.

While his employer, Northrop Grumman, made arrangements to get his ticket changed so he could get to Tucson today (which he had to do in order to not spend any extra money) I called Southwest to arrange his flight from Tucson to Denver so he would be stepping off one plane and getting on another.

He has several free flights with them so I couldn’t really do it on the website. The ticketing agent was holding back tears throughout the call. I’m actually her step-mother and it’s much more important for my husband to be there than for me to be there.

In LAX, the lines to both check a bag and get through security were exceptional. He got to the airport two hours early and was still late getting to his plane.

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.

According to him, everyone he talked to couldn’t have cared less. 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, “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.”

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

I don’t know any other airline that would have done this.

I’m speechless. Twelve minutes many not sound like a lot to you or me, but every second counts when you’re an airline. Southwest can turn an entire plane around in about 20 minutes, so 12 minutes is half an eternity.

I shared Nancy’s story with Southwest, and a representative said the airline was “proud” of the way the pilot had held the flight. Again, most airlines would punish an employee who holds up the line for any reason.

This a trip that was saved amid tragic circumstances by a compassionate pilot and an airline that supported his decision to hold a flight.

Good work, Southwest!

(Photo: gwil more/Flickr Creative Commons)

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  • http://www.productive-solutions.com Shawn Pearsall

    My condolences as well.

    I started commuting to Cleveland (a distance of 4 hours drive) to take Southwest to Chicago. At $800 less a trip, it made sense for my small company. Before my first trip, I purchased and read the book “Nuts” by Kaplin & Kaplin. This book explains their culture, and it’s one thing to read about it, it’s another to experience it first hand.

    I’m now an “A Lister” on SWA which means they get a lot of my business. Here’s an example of why:

    On my second flight out of Cleveland they wheeled an older woman on to the plane and placed here in the second row of seating on the left side of the plane. The door closes and as the plan is making a slight turn banking away from the terminal, the woman says in a very soft voice. “I sure hope they got my wheelchair on the plane” The attendant, about to do his announcements heard this (how I don’t know because it was not very loud) and stopped to ask her if she needed anything. She repeated the request. He immediately picked up the headset and talked to the grounds crew that was pushing the plane. Two guys bolted fron under the plane back to the gateway. One guy up the stairs, the other on the ground witing to catch the folded chair. The second guy bolts back to the plane which has never stopped. The stop the plane, disconnect the pushmotor and place the chair inside the belly.

    The flight attendant comes around and tells her everything is OK and she’ll have her chair waiting for her at the gate when they arrive. She never saw any of this…What I saw was a great group of compassionate people that understand they have one shot at making your flight an experience to remember.

    I’ve flown them ever since and at 40 flights or more a year, they get as my business as much as I can give to them. Taking care of the customer is what it’s all about. On dozens of flights the pilot has held the plane for late connections, bags, etc. That’s simply the right things to do.

    Each of you can help make this happen too. You have the power to respond to these companies. Write a letter, fax or e-mail and let them know when you see something good that happens. Not just when they mess up. I’m a firm believer in positive reinforcement. Southwest practices this each and every day.

  • Letmeworkwithyou

    Why are these stories so rare on the evening news?  Although it is a sad, sad tragedy for the family, it is a great example of human compassion – not to mention outstanding customer service. Kudos to Southwest, and my prayers to Nancy and her family. 

  • Pingback: A great story about Southwest Airlines. I think they do it right. | Don Burnside blogs here

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