So this story about how Southwest airlines turned a plane around for a mother to be able to meet her son in hospital has gone viral. It is a reminder of how even giant corporations can have a heart if the people who work there have the freedom to show they care. The reason we don’t hear such stories more often is because many ’employees’ feel like they are part of a machine and not allowed to have any personal opinion. Any deviation from the norm (even a slight one) becomes a case for ‘Let me ask the manager.’ It is difficult to express care and concern in such an environment, which is why the Southwest airlines story is remarkable. It reminded me of a flight I had taken years ago. I was distraught and worried about my mother.
This was in September 2001. The 9/11 attacks had happened the day before I went to Igatpuri to learn Vipasana meditation. I never heard any news after the attacks for the next 10 days because you have to take a vow of silence and stay away from books, TV, cellphones, just about everything during the course. Plus I did not have a cell phone at the time.
When I came back home on September 23rd, the first thing I heard was that my grandmother passed away and that my mom was in Coimbatore.
So on September 24th, 2001, I flew from Bombay to Coimbatore on an Air India flight. I was trying hard not to cry. A fellow passenger who had lost her father was sitting beside me and she was in bad shape as well. But, what was remarkable about the whole journey was this steward who kept trying to lift our spirits. He didn’t have a clue about what was going on. He just saw me in a state and asked what I needed from time to time. To my wan ‘nothings’ and ‘no, thank yous’, he always responded with a ‘How about some tea?’ or something which always got a dull ‘Ok.’He got me freshly brewed tea and a few things I am sure are not even allowed in economy. And at the end of the flight he gave me an entire bag of candy, which was a good thing because it made me smile and made my young cousins who came to receive me very happy.
I wish I had the presence of mind to note his name. I never forgot the incident and have often talked about it during customer service training sessions or even as an example of a random act of kindness. It was not as grand as Southwest’s gesture, but it was one man who changed one frown upside down one day.
Wherever you are, if you flew the afternoon flight that day in September, thank you.