United Airlines holds plane so passenger can say goodbye to his dying mother

Photo courtesy United Airlines.
Photo courtesy United Airlines.

Kerry Drake’s mother was dying. She’d suffered from rheumatoid arthritis for decades and the drugs used to treat her condition had decimated her immune system. One morning his brother called him to say her time time had come.

Drake caught the next flight from San Francisco, where he works for the federal government, to Lubbock, Texas, via Houston.

“I knew this itinerary was a risk because the stopover in Houston was only about 40 minutes, and my connecting flight was the last flight to Lubbock that day,” he says. “But I needed to get there as soon as possible, so I took the risk.”

As it turns out, United flight 667 was delayed leaving San Francisco. Drake was visibly distraught. You can’t prepare for a moment like this, but now came the very real possibility that he wouldn’t have chance to see his mother before she passed away.

A flight attendant, Sofia Lares, tried to comfort him. “She said she would do everything she could and brought extra napkins for my tears,” Kerry says.

Another flight attendant, Lan Chung, asked Kerry flight number and relayed it to the captain.

Flight 667 made up some time enroute to Houston, but not enough. By the time Drake’s plane landed, his connecting flight had left the gate. At least that’s what he thought.

“As I was running up to the gate, the gate agent saw me coming and shouted, ‘Mr. Drake? We’ve been expecting you’,” he said. “That’s when I knew they had conspired to help me. She waved me onto the plane without looking at my boarding pass.”

United had held the aircraft for him. Not only did he make it to Lubbock as scheduled, but so did his luggage.

“Had I missed my flight to Lubbock, I would not have been able to tell my mom goodbye,” Drake said. “When she died, I realized I was wiping away my tears with the extra United napkins that Sofia had given me the day before.”

Drake says he’s grateful to the flight crew that made his farewell possible, including the attendants on his San Francisco flight and Denver-based captain Edward Goldstein and Dirk Chilian, the flight’s first officer. He also thanks Houston customer service rep Marie Robertson and all the Houston baggage handlers who got his luggage to his final destination.

United Airlines is the second recipient of our Elliott Award for Excellent Customer Service. (Here’s last week’s winner.)

It’s been a few years since we’ve had an airline hold a flight for a passenger in need. Nice work, United.

If you’ve experienced excellent customer service recently, please . We’re recognizing companies who go above and beyond the call of duty in a new weekly feature.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • http://twitter.com/bodzewski Jeff Bodzewski

    A United agent and crew out of LGA did a very similar thing for me – in a true moment of crisis you see the values of a company come through and I’d like to think that there are many other examples of United taking this type of action without publicity. Yes, we can all focus on fees, delays and other inconveniences, but actually trusting a company to be more than a logo or annual report is something that isn’t recognized enough.

  • Forsyth Jones

    Dont mean to rain on your parade, but I’m a giant douche and have to find the negative in everything.

    Sincerely,

    Half the commenters

  • KV

    Thanks for sharing this story, I sure wish more people knew about stuff like this. As a pilot with one of United’s regional partners, I can tell you firsthand that, yes, this kind of thing happens every day and no, it doesn’t get talked about too much because we call it ‘doing our job’. If we are running late for whatever reason and there are passengers that have spoken up about a desire to make connections that are going to be close (again, I personally don’t care if their mother is dying or if their dog just needs to go out for a walk when they get home), I’m on the radio talking with the folks at the station letting them know exactly what the situation is and coordinating as much as possible. Can every flight get held? No, of course it can’t. But more do than most folks would imagine, and at the very least communicating about this stuff can help customer service work on getting everyone’s travel plans re-organized in the event that they miss a connection.

    Biggest advice? Speak up! Concerned about missing a connection? Talk to the gate agent at the departure airport before you even know you’re going to be late. Talk to the crew while you’re in the air. And if, when you do arrive at the destination, things have transpired to give you five minutes to get off of one airplane, run to another part of the airport, and be on another one, do yourself a favor and find a gate agent AS SOON as you get off the first airplane and tell them to call ahead to your connecting gate and let them know you’re coming. Missed connections are terrible headaches for gate and customer service agents, so if they know you’re on the ground and running to make the connection, as long as they haven’t closed the door yet, they will most likely WAIT for you to get there because that is less work than trying to find you a seat on another flight later.

    And as for everyone making comments about inconveniencing the rest of the airplane for one passenger; frankly I couldn’t give a damn about waiting five or ten minutes at a busy airport like Houston or Los Angeles, etc., because the probability that we get stuck behind another airplane that needs to start engines or sit in line for the runway or have to deal with ATC needing us to slow down enroute for other air traffic is pretty great anyway. So if given the choice between waiting ten minutes for a connection, or closing the door and then holding at the gate for ten minutes for taxiway congestion (while, from the flight deck, we can see into the gate area, where the passenger we left is very irate/frustrated/sad), I think a good majority of us would try to get the customer on board the airplane.

    Fly safe out there folks!

  • Chris

    Kudos to United. As for the 45 minute layover, I won’t go there. I’ve done the OJ Simpson dash over the baggage at O’Hara when I was young enough to

    still hurdle them, and I still missed my connection. If anything is to be taken from this story, I hope it is this: Don’t wait until your mother is dying to go see her.
    She would treasure the visit MUCH MORE if she is lucid.

  • rf

    You guys are talking about the flight delay ripple effect as though the flight was going to be on time in the first place. Have any of you ever actually flown on United?

    Still, two thumbs up for the people who got involved to make a difference in this family’s lives.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/home?trk=hb_tab_home_top jeff utigard

    The friendly skies abide…

  • http://www.linkedin.com/home?trk=hb_tab_home_top jeff utigard

    Perhaps the 100 people would have been delighted to be a part of this unreasonable act of kindness… and maybe inspired to go commit more unreasonable acts of kindness themselves…

  • Aim

    I don’t think the article says the flight landed on time but that the luggage got there as it should have. However, with a 40 minute gap in between flights and Mr. Drake running for the flight, I do get the impression that the flight was delayed no more than a few minutes. The flight is only 1.5 hours so I’m guessing it ultimately did land very close to on schedule, was pushed up to first place for unloading etc. I’m doubting any other passengers were inconvenienced by the delay and if they had any compassion, they were glad they could be a part of this awesome story.

  • Aim

    According to the internet that flight is usually around 1.5 hours. I think perhaps you have no heart. I hope you are never in a similar situation

  • Manuel

    Because of people like you…..

  • Paul

    They let him on the plane without checking his ID or boarding pass???

  • noname

    “That’s when I knew they had conspired to help me. She waved me onto the plane without looking at my boarding pass.” ….. Anddddd he just got her fired :( whomp whomp

  • joshua362

    Chris, the problem with your “award” (assuming all the “exceptional” stated circumstances such as holding the last flight of the day – by the way, quite routine – but you state is extraordinary) is that you reward an entire humongous profit-first Corporation for the actions of a few compassionate individuals in charge at the right time & right place. Ask yourself if this would happen 10 times out of 10, then maybe there would be a trend. Statisticians say you need a minimum of 30 occurrences of any event before you can drawn any conclusions…

  • Ray

    Wonderful news. United is my least favorite airline. Maybe it was that great Texas hospitality at work. The tone of some of your readers sucks. Everyone of the people responding here should never have said a word after writing “But…”. but nothing.

  • Chernobyl Schlong

    What i dont understand is she was not dying suddenly and was about to kick the bucket for months and he decides to do a last minute flight ????????????

  • Theresa

    This is awesome. I will book with United next time because they DESERVE my business, and everyone else’s!

  • llandyw

    This story actually made it to the front/top of the CNN website today. It can be found at: http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/06/travel/united-flight-delay-dying-mother/index.html?hpt=hp_c1

  • shannonfla

    On the flip side, I was flying home PHL to FLL trying to make it in time to see my dying aunt (we’re a close Irish family). My US Air flight was late leaving because of an irate passenger who felt slighted by a US Air terminal employee (I watched the entire encounter and felt the passenger was 95% wrong). The passenger demanded a rep come on board so she could complain and it took forever (unfortunately I was seated directly in front of her and heard the whole thing). I finally got up to ask the flight attendants why we were delayed, burst into tears and had to excuse myself to the bathroom. Thankfully we finally started pulling away from the gate as I was pulling myself together. Even though I know there is time built in to flights to accommodate delays, we were still late.

    It turned out that I missed seeing my aunt by an hour or so, more time than caused by the delay. Had it been due to the delay, I would have felt much worse. Remember that if you ever feel like delaying a flight for a complaint.

    Ironically, I think I would have been fine with the flight being delayed so someone could make it in time to see their dying mother, but that’s only because my aunt was unconscious.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Ricardo.V.Lopes7 Ricardo Vargas Lopes

    I had a concert/presentation on February 27th in Houston. I’m a producer of soundtrack and short-films and a huge amount of equipment and people flying from NYC and LAX were attending the presentation. I woke up, on Saturday, checked my e-mail, send all e-mails to production managers and staff to confirm the event, and at 10:00am local time I got an email to proceed with the web check in from UA. As I completed the web-checking, I saw that my flight to Houston was canceled and I was sent to go to Washington. Facts:

    *The UA Airplane was grounded without flight conditions since Friday, the 26th.

    *UA has all means of getting in touch with me to advice, at least the day
    before, the problem.

    *About US$150K in equipment rental had to be paid, due to UA flight
    cancelation.

    *UA offered me a US$500 voucher or 0,33% of my financial and professional image damage.

    There were no efforts whatsoever to resolve my problem. I called the customer
    center, opened a protocol number to track and register the occurrence.

    After all, nothing was done by UA. Just that, Nothing! How about that for UA?

  • pscottcummins

    In 2007 flying SEA-OHR on United we were weather delayed. United held the OHR-LHR connection for us and poured on the coal to get us to London for connection to EBB on BA. Thanks United!

  • Adil

    100 people having a mediocre experience is worth the free positive news press United is getting at the moment.

  • Richard Lipscombe

    Customer Care should be designed into the United product/service not randomly distributed through their system as it is now. This is just one more bad/poor example of how they actually run that company. Leave the terminal on schedule and thus honour the contract with the customers who made the flight on time. It is the simple principle of ‘duty of care’ that United can not deliver on. Recent international travel with United taught me why they are rated one of the worse airlines in the world. This story simply confirms what I already know about United – they make it up as they go along. When you experience customer care the United way it really makes you think twice about your need to travel at all. Cheers, Richard.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=71107975 Michael Wright

    Umm did you see the part where the guy was running to his connecting flight and the gate attendant didn’t even bother to ask for his ticket because she addressed him personally? Yeah good call. Oh and not to be honest or anything but anytime anyone says “I don’t really want to rain on the parade…” be prepared for them to do just that. Same goes for “No offense but”, “With all due respect”, etc.

  • jpp42

    I don’t disagree that the message from the Captain likely made it back to the gate agent, which is fine. My point was that the actual decision to hold the connecting flight was made by a dispatcher, likely out of concern for the company’s bottom line in terms of being responsible for overnight lodging costs for any/all misconnecting passengers. It probably *wasn’t* made as a result of this specific “dying mother” plea – though the gate agent may have led him to believe that because it couldn’t hurt. (There’s no reason for the gate agent to come out and say, “Oh Mr. Drake, we’ve been waiting for you – we actually don’t care about your mother, but please get to your flight in a hurry because we don’t want to pay for your misconnect” – even though that’s actually probably the situation.) In fact, it’s really fairly common for gate agents to be aware of specific passengers on short connections and being ready to help direct passengers there, even without messages sent ahead via the flight crew.

    Fair point about the “I don’t want to rain on the parade” comment – I’ll be more careful about using that in the future. I guess what I was trying to say is that I’m hoping I won’t personally be thought of as insensitive for merely pointing out the airline’s motive is likely profit, not compassion, even if they managed to pass it off as being sensitive.

  • bodega3

    Sorry you have such a sad life.

  • ShooShoo

    Nice of this crew. The last time my United connection through Houston was late, all I got from the United crew was a reprimand for booking a 40 minute connection (like I had a choice). To add insult to injury, even tho the connecting flight was late too, United gave away my seat and those of about 15 others on that flight, even tho they knew we could make it with matching delays.

  • Hernando Q

    Way to go UNITED!!! And God, please forgive those senseless people who have posted those comments criticizing the United Airline crew move, Let’s hope they’ll never have to endure a dying mother-father situation, EVER….

  • dave

    mikegun – i’m not doubting the validity of your story, however in the example from this article that would not have been the case. Since Lubbock is not a hub, United would never route someone through Lubbock as a connecting city. In other words, delaying that flight to Lubbock would not have caused any of the passengers to miss a connection. I am sure United factored that into their decision to hold the flight 20 minutes.

  • 2ifmysee

    I’ve been on planes many times that were delayed because a crew member didn’t show up, there was a mechanical problem and the airline had to find a different plane, the plane arriving from another city was late, bad weather, and this week, no bottled water on the plane. This is the state of airline travel today. Waiting so someone could see his dying mum to say goodbye is just as valid as the rest.

  • $16635417

    I think the bigger reason they were able to hold it is because it was the last flight of the night. Had it been a flight during the day, wherever the aircraft was continuing to would have run the risk of being delayed. For example, if the aircraft were returning to Houston and a late arrival from Houston delayed customers from Lubbock to Houston that could possibly put some of those connections at risk. (United serves Denver as well, I haven’t checked, but if the aircraft continues to Denver, could also be a problem as well for missed connections.)

    In my case, not considering the repercussions of the action caused consequences. I’m sure everyone thought they were doing the right thing. A delay into a hub is a problem.

    I’ve been on many last flights of the night from a hub and, as others have said, it’s not unusual to wait for connecting passengers.

  • http://www.careerbreak360.com/ Liz

    It is good to read about a big corporation showing a caring side. The plane was not held up for long, so they should have still landed in time at no inconvenience to the other passengers.

  • Matty B.

    My mistake, in my haste to express my own thoughts I must have skimmed yours. I agree with you 100%.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Ihatetimelin Deb Thurston

    I had to fly Ubnited back from Frankfort. I found them to be kind & very good @ what they do. I did not know that they did ‘good’ deeds but I am glad to hear it.

  • Angy

    I Buy your Idea Aimee H. Great story here- really tourching especially for those who live far from their loved ones knowing such circumstances could meet them some day. I´d like to know that there are people or companies out there who can do that extra effort and go that extra mile just to ease the burden of some suffering customer (s).

  • superpj

    It’s all in the people. I missed a flight from hong kong with united because security took too long and had to pay $800 to get another. The next day the flight was delayed for 2 hours so another passenger could join us who later joked that he knew a flight attendant and had over slept.

  • http://www.debstover.com/ GIwidow

    I’m so sorry. :(

  • http://www.debstover.com/ GIwidow

    Kudos to the flight crew only. United Airlines should be permanently grounded and fined for it’s consistently shoddy, sub-standard service.

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