Friday, May 5, 2017

An Actual Good Airline Memory

The airline industry is not in really good shape these days as far as public relations are concerned.  You have doubtlessly been aware of the various disagreements-cum-fisticuffs that have been filmed by the ever-present cameras on board.  This morning Delta is being bashed for a removal of a paid passenger from an overbooked flight.

All the big airlines appear to have been affected, and those that may have not are just lucky.  I truly doubt that the dragging off of a passenger from a United flight had much to do with the fact that it was United -- after all, it was the cops who did the dragging (though not the overbooking).  They all do it; they all are in "There but for the grace of God" mode.

Those of us who have flown half a million miles or so have also had some exceptional experiences on board commercial flights, though.  In this airline-bashing time, it makes sense to recall that those are the ideal to which the airlines aspire.

For example, twenty years back I was flying to a technology conference held in Honolulu by the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association.  AFCEA holds these in maybe a half-dozen cities each year, as a way to give the defense contracting industry an opportunity to display their IT-related wares to the military in a relaxed environment -- and they are productive.  The Hawaii one, aside from its location, is excellent as it's the only one that our military in the Pacific Rim can get to, in order to speak with the contracting community.

I took my wife with me (at our expense, of course), since outside the six hours a day of "booth duty" at the conference, I was free and we could have something like a Hawaiian vacation.  We connected to a flight out of San Francisco, and it turned out that was the retirement flight of the pilot.  He was going to live in Hawaii, so not only was this his last flight, but it was his trip home.

He was a happy man, and showed it, coming back during the flight to thank his passengers for making his career, shaking hands and chatting with passengers often on the overhead speakers during the flight.  When we landed, we all shook hands again in a receiving line; I high-fived the pilot (heck, you land in Hawaii you're happy to start with, not to mention slightly influenced by onboard mai-tais), and had thoroughly enjoyed the hours in the air.

But that wasn't necessarily one of those above-and-beyond events.  This one was.

Do you remember Eastern Airlines?  Eastern was a very well-established carrier for many years, running the "shuttle" route from what is now Reagan International Airport in Washington, to LaGuardia in New York, to Logan Airport in Boston.  The shuttle went through several hands (including, interestingly, those of the current president) after Eastern's demise in 1991.  And I still remember that Eastern's cabins had an unusual smell to them, as if they used a different cleaner to wash the cabin walls.

But Eastern had many domestic and worldwide routes as well, and it was on one of them that I was flying one day around 1978 or so for business, from the Cincinnati airport near Covington, KY.  There was absolutely zero remarkable about that flight, and I don't even recall where I was going at the time.

I went up to the agent area right at the gate (things were different then) and checked in with the Eastern agent there at the gate to get my ticket.  He was a younger man in his late 20s, and went through the process of issuing the boarding pass professionally but not otherwise noticeably different from the way any other agent would have done his job.

The 100 or so of us waited in the gate before boarding, until the announcement was made to begin to board the plane.  I joined the line as each passenger gave the agent our boarding pass so he could tear off our half and give it back to us, and we could walk out to the plane.

I wasn't paying attention to what he was saying to each person ahead of me in the line until I got close and started to hear him.  What was he saying?  Now I heard.  He was wishing a nice flight to each passenger by name, before they gave him the boarding pass.

Do you follow?  He had memorized the name and face of every single passenger on that flight so he could greet them and wish them a pleasant flight by name as he took their pass.  The assumption, of course, is that he did the same for every single flight he worked, presumably for no other reason than as a mental exercise that resulted in something special for those who went through his gate flying his airline.

Sure enough, I got to his position and he greeted me, "Have a nice flight, Mr. Sutton, may I have your boarding pass?"  I said "thank you", and that would have been it, except that I never forgot that incident had happened.

I have googled the heck out of the InterWeb we now have, to see if there was any other mention of that guy and if he had a reputation, or if anyone remembered him.  Nothing.

So here goes, in honor of an airline employee who took his job seriously, and who truly went above and beyond in customer service, his actions are remembered forever online and searchable.

And if that story rings true for anyone who reads this, I'd love to find that fellow and let him know that forty years since, I still appreciate what he did, obviously on a several-times-a-day basis, to make his customers happy.

Good job, sir.

Copyright 2017 by Robert Sutton
Like what you read here?  There's a new post from Bob at at 10am Eastern time, every weekday, giving new meaning to "prolific essayist."  Appearance, advertising, sponsorship and interview inquiries cheerfully welcomed at or on Twitter at @rmosutton.

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