First class in economy


By Scott Robertson

By rights, it should have been a nightmare.

One of American Airlines’ carriers, PSA, had a massive computer failure last month. Over five-plus days, 2,700 flights were cancelled. Charlotte, N.C. reportedly ran out of rental cars. Hotels were full. The airport concourses were what I refer to as “angry people soup.” There, in the middle of it all, hoping to get to a better place (a low bar to clear at that point) stood I.

I had arrived at Tri-Cities Airport that morning aware of the problems PSA was having. I was told at the check-in counter it was a crap-shoot as to whether my connector flight from Charlotte to my destination would actually leave. My connector was a PSA flight, and most of those were being cancelled. So, I agreed to take a non-PSA American flight to an airport 100 miles from my destination instead. I’d just have to check in with customer service in Charlotte to get a rental car taken care of at my new penultimate destination.

When I arrived in Charlotte, I was told that my original connector was still listed as departing on time, but that there was another flight to my final destination leaving 45 minutes earlier, and seats were available. So, I abandoned the second route for the third option and boarded that flight.

We pushed away from the gate and stopped on the tarmac. And there we stayed.

There was a maintenance issue, the captain told us, so we would just wait for a maintenance crew to come to us and, “make what should be a very quick fix.”

You may have heard the saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him all your plans.” When God heard the pilot tell us we should have a very quick fix, I’m sure I heard God chuckle.

The sky opened in a sudden thunderstorm. We watched the truck that had been heading toward our plane from the terminal turn around. Once the rain stopped, the captain told us that it would be at least 15 minutes after the last lightning strike before the maintenance crew could approach the plane.

I tell you all of this misfortune to set up a lovely denouement.

As we “celebrated” the one-hour mark of waiting on the tarmac, I mentioned to a flight attendant that I had a bit of a headache. I inquired as to whether any pain pills might be available. I was told that it was against regulations for such distribution to be made, but if I could be patient a few minutes, food service would begin and perhaps that would help.

Within 10 minutes, the crew began serving pretzels and drinks, there on the tarmac. When the flight attendant reached me, I received not only a package of pretzels, but also a napkin. My napkin, unlike those being handed to other passengers, was folded. Tucked inside were four ibuprofen tablets. The flight attendant smiled for a half-second and moved on.

Once the maintenance team arrived, they proved the captain right, making what was indeed a very quick fix. When the plane finally began to taxi, a small boy who had been blessedly quiet through the whole experience shouted, “Yaaaaaaaaaaah!” Most of the passengers laughed appreciatively. That boy was all of us. The flight attendant may have laughed loudest.

It dawned on me at that moment that amid all the chaos, all the disgruntlement and disappointment of the day, not one airline employee had been anything less than professional. Several had performed their duties with empathy and even, in the case of this flight attendant, grace. Think about that. They’d been dealing with extraordinarily unhappy people for a week. You’d think by this time their own veneer would be cracking. Yet they seemed to be doubling down on handling their own part of the business the right way.

My flight landed after the “crap-shoot” flight on which I had first been booked, ironically. In fact, the flight I took had been delayed for more than eight hours from its scheduled departure time.

Yet I felt buoyed by the experience. None of us had any control over our circumstances. But the rank-and-file employees I encountered each made the choice to control their own behavior and to rise above those circumstances. Had my flight been on time, I would have missed the opportunity to be inspired by those choices.   

Years from now, I could remember that Wednesday as the day in which I encountered thousands of unhappy travelers, or as the day I wondered how a computer problem couldn’t be fixed in a week, or as the day I sat on the tarmac for more than an hour as a thunderstorm and a headache both raged. Instead, I will remember it as the day I realized how any situation can be made better by people who choose to act in a first-class manner.

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