An unexpected act of kindness from a big airline

Carlos E. Santa Maria /
Carlos E. Santa Maria /

If you think airlines stopped caring about everyone but their elite-level “high value” passengers long ago, you’ll want to hear Dick and Zoe Hannah’s heartwarming story that — I’ve gotta be honest with you — really restores my faith in humanity.

It’s easy to be left with that impression, by the way. Consider American Airlines, which just reported record second quarter profits and is about to merge with US Airways. It’s rewarding us by moving some of its seats in economy class closer together. So there!

The Hannahs, both of whom are retired schoolteachers from San Jose, Calif., were scheduled to fly to Portland, Ore., on May 16. But on the evening of May 14, they received a call every parent dreads. Their adult son had died.

To be fair, most airlines will refund a ticket when an immediate relative passes away, so the Hannah’s ticket shouldn’t have been an issue for them no matter which airline they were flying.

But generally, airlines don’t believe their customers when it comes to a death in the family, so when Dick or Zoe Hanna phoned their airline, they would have probably been asked to send a death certificate to prove their child had actually died, which is an unbearably painful thing for any parent.

Unless you’re flying on Southwest Airlines. Which the Hannahs were.

“I was expecting to have to provide some documentation when I called Southwest,” says Dick Hannah.

Instead, Hannah called Southwest and spoke with a representative name Jeannette in Dallas. She listened to Hannah. She empathized. And she believed him.

“She handled our request smoothly and very courteously,” he told me.

Hannah could have received a full refund for the ticket, but he and his wife still wanted to fly to Portland. Jeannette made sure all fees — including any fare differential that may have applied — was waived for the grief-stricken couple.

Would another airline have done that? Perhaps.

But not what happened next.

A few days later, the Hannahs received a sympathy card from Jeannette.

“It touched us quite deeply,” he said.

It touched me, too. I have never heard of an airline sending a passenger a sympathy card. Such a small act. But so meaningful.

Thank you, Jeannette. You’re a credit to Southwest.

I listen to passenger complaints every day, so when I hear something like this, it moves me to tears. When I shared it with my Southwest contact, she confessed that it has the same effect on her. I’m glad I’m not the only one.

“We certainly felt Southwest went above and beyond,” Hannah told me.

Southwest is far from perfect, of course. Not everyone likes its one-class configuration, and critics snort at me when the airline says its “bags fly free.” Hardly, they counter. Bags are just included in the cost of the fare.

But still. Stories like this make me believe that airlines might still understand they’re in the customer service business.

I’ve reported similar recent incidents on United Airlines and JetBlue Airways flights. I want to believe the employees of these large carriers want to provide above-and-beyond service even for those of us who don’t have platinum cards and whose hobbies include collecting frequent flier miles.

I believe there’s only one way for us to make sure more airline employees rise to the occasion and do more than the bare minimum for regular passengers like the Hannahs. We can tell everyone when it happens, like they did.

The more these good deeds are recognized and celebrated, the better the chance of a repeat performance.

Are the travel industry's "good" deeds underappreciated by customers?

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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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  • Steve Rabin

    This would be very unexpected from most airline employees, but not from Southwest. They wrote the book on customer service. For them, it’s simple: the customer doesn’t come first, the employee does. Take care of your employees, and they will take care of the customers. They encourage their folks to be humans, not automotons. So I don’t find it at all surprising that Jeanette sent them a sympathy card–employees like Jeanette know that Hannahs (and their friends and relatives) will fly Southwest again because of this simple gesture.
    And to the Hannahs–my sincerest condolences.

  • California Dave

    The travel and hospitality business is one of the most difficult from a customer service perspective. People get into this business because they have customer service skills and want to make people happy. The constant rude and unreasonable demands from some travellers can wear on them over time. I really believe there are truly good people in this business, and management should empower them to do the right thing for the customer without always having to follow the rule book to the letter. Good job Jennifer and Southwest!

  • Wakkoroti

    Great for them. Too bad that they still gave the middle finger and no apology to the thousands that they screwed in the great computer meltdown in June.

  • Kevin Mathews


    This Polling Question is a little tainted. The airline industry has set the bar so low for themselves, that’s it’s sometime mindboggling that they can’t even rise above it. Stories like this, while heartfelt don’t change the fact that 99% of the time the airlines don’t give a crap about their passengers…
    So to ask if the “Are the travel industry’s “good” deeds underappreciated by customers?” is like asking if the toilet paper in the men’s bathroom met your expectations?

  • EdB

    Was this an act of the airline to send the card, or a act of sympathy from the employee acting on their own? The story says they got it from the employee, not from SouthWest. Was that just something edited out of the story?

  • EdB

    In regards to the poll question, I don’t think the travel industry’s good deeds are underappreciated by the customer that gets them. I just think they are so few and far between they are buried in all the bad deeds the industry heaps onto themselves.

  • Jamie Jo

    I think what you call “good deeds” use to be called “customer service and compassion” or just good manners. I miss those days.

  • Nica

    My sincerest condolences to the family.

    Great job Ms. Jeannette and to Southwest!

  • lfletcher3

    When Southwest sent two free tickets for an auction I created for a nonprofit, it included a formal letter that the donation was honoring an employee. (I don’t remember the name.) I put the letter in a frame and placed in on the table, next to the bidding form. It was the only time that an airline/any company had done it. I was totally surprised. It was many years ago and I hope that SWA is still doing it now.

  • sffilk

    I think it’s more a case of you’re blown away when someone does something compassionate that you don’t know how to react.

  • Ian Parrish

    What an amazing act of kindness. I’m so impressed by Hannah. If I were Southwest, I’d worry about this employee getting promoted right out of her call center.

  • TonyA_says

    I prefer using one of those Japanese bidets :) Their airlines are quite good, too.

  • Rob S

    I wonder if they will choose another airline next time a fare pops up that is $ 5 cheaper ? That is the conundrum airline execs have– so far creating a full service airline with amenities has never worked……people just choose the cheapest fare. And, the bags do fly free on LUV — the price has them included but when you compare fares it is hard to add in all the fees some airlines try to add. iMAGINE TRYING TO RUN A SUCCESSFUL 3 STAR RESTAURANT WHEN CUSTOMERS COMPARE YOUR PRICES TO MCDONALDS AND CHOOSE MCDONALDS EVERYTIME. THAT IS THE DILEMMA AIRLINES HAVE HAD SINCE THE ADVENT OF DISCOUNT AIRLINES.

  • Joanne Pinnock

    I think the customer service industry in general has lost sight of how far a small, kind gesture will carry. First act of kindness was Jeanette expressing sincere sympathy while refunding the Hannah’s tickets and then going above and beyond to send a handwritten, hard copy sympathy card. This was then paid forward by the Hannah’s with their generous decision to share this with you Chris, and now all of your faithful followers. If anyone in the airline industry is reading my post right now, it DOES make a difference to hear stories like these and MOST DEFINITELY affects my decisions in the future when it comes to choosing an airline for my travel. My sincerest condolences to you, Dick and Zoe Hannah

  • Jim Daniel

    When I used to fly a lot, I always preferred Southwest. They spoke my language. Southwest has been a NO B.S. ZONE from it’s inception.

    I liked them so much that I had Heart-shaped Stress Balls made up that had my name and toll free number on one side and the slogan, “I’m stress-free on Southwest” on the other. Admittedly, I was in the Promotional Products industry, and they cost me just pennies each plus they traveled all over and I ended up with new business from them, still I quickly earned a nickname, “The Heart Man”, around West Coast terminals.

  • Miami510

    Kindness works both ways…

    Many years ago I traveled to Europe a few times a year to teach. On one Pan Am flight, Philadelphia to London, I observed a stewardess (anachronistic I know, but that’s what they were called then) was very kind to a mother traveling with two very young children. She helped the woman who was struggling with the attention that a baby in diapers and a two year old demand. I wrote a letter to Pan Am giving them the name of their employee and complimenting her kindness.

    A few years later on the same flight route, I noticed the same stewardess and told her I remembered the incident and asked if she ever got any feedback from my letter. She became excited… “You’re the one!” She went on to tell me that her mother lived in London and her seniority at the time precluded her getting London as her base, and therefore couldn’t get to see her ailing mother as often as she wanted. Pan Am rewarded her as a result of my letter and she had been based in
    London since then.

    Bread on the Waters:

    She subsequently spoke to the captain and I was moved to first class. All the stewardesses had heard the story and everyone kept asking if there was anything they could do for me. Like a pebble thrown in the pond, the ripples from that incident had an effect on all the employees that heard the story as well as it did on me.

  • emanon256

    Good point. I just heard a piece on the radio about how today’s passengers will fly in a plane with 28″ pitch over one with 32″ pitch to save as little as $5 on a ticket, then they will complain about how horrible the experience was, when they were the ones who choose 4″ in less leg room to save $5. Its a very hard industry when people only shop by price.

  • emanon256

    I voted yes. I believe in the old adage that if a business does something wrong, the wronged customer tells at least 10 people, but if a business does something right, the customer tells only 2 people. I am sure there is a much more eloquent way of phrasing that.

    I am glad South West empowers their employees to actually help people. I honestly think management focusing on metrics, rather than the human experience, is responsible for a lot of today’s bad customer service. Employees must get through a certain number of phone calls per hours to keep their jobs. Employees get dinged for issuing refunds. The list goes on. It basically discourages good customer service, and when good customer service actually happens, it gets drowned out by all the bad.

  • Dutchess

    It’s not that it’s under appreciated, it’s the fact that for every one good deed they do there’s 20 other reasons to dislike them. Then when they do one good thing we’re supposed to forget the rest? I think not.

  • S363

    I flat don’t believe that, assuming (a strong assumption to be sure) that the customer is fully informed. Would anybody out there NOT pay an extra $5 for 4″ more legroom (unless maybe you’re 4′ 10″)? He||, United gets $30 or $50 or more for the privilege. The problem is that the customers are NOT fully informed. (Customers: Look at!)

    I for one will fly Southwest even if it costs a little more (which it rarely does if one is checking bags) because of the superior experience. Small examples: On a recent flight with my 5 year old grandson I asked if he could have another little bag of peanuts. The attendant brought six of them. On the return (without grandson) I paid the extra $10 for their Early Bird and got an exit row – see above about what United charges. And I have made changes to WN flights at no charge, including rebooking the SAME flight at a lower fare and getting a credit for the difference.

    In this copycat world I really fail to see why United and American and Delta don’t do more copying of Southwest’s model. Maybe they’re afraid Southwest is like Apple and will sue anybody who does anything remotely similar to what they do, no matter how mundane and obvious!

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I agree. The commoditization of the industry is terrible all around. Shopping by price only is a horrible business practice.

  • EdB

    More a horrible consumer practice. ;)

  • tio2girl

    Agreed. If it was clear on their site that for only $5 more, you get 4″ more legroom, it would be a no brainer (at least for me), but what airline will shout that out? No, you do have to go to another site like seatguru to suss out that kind of information. And often cost just does play a necessary part of the consumer’s decision. What may seem reasonable to one consumer (say $50 for a better seat) may be a legitimate financial hardship on another no matter what the associated perks are.

  • John Keahey

    I must mention my experience with Delta last fall. I was in Italy working on a six-month project. With four days to go before my scheduled return to the U.S., I got a call that my oldest son had died from a massive heart attack. I called Delta via Skype, told a representative what happened, and he put me in touch with a supervisor. “She can do more for you than I can,” he said. She did. She heard my story, booked me on a flight out of Pisa for early the next morning and rerouted me to Phoenix where my son’s family was rather than my home in Utah. No additional charges, no extra FF miles (this was a one-way FF flight, at low mileage for a trans Atlantic flight, that I had earlier scheduled). There was no demand to see a death certificate or any other documentation. In less than 24 hours I was with my family in Phoenix.

  • Alan Gore

    This is not an isolated instance on Southwest, which has long been known for a friendly attitude toward its customers and a humorous corporate style. Sending a sympathy card is unusual, though. So WN has customer service figured out; why haven’t other domestic carriers caught on?

    As one of the many travelers who defines a destination as a place where Southwest flies, what’s wrong with one-class seating? The first-class fans on That Other Site are always compaining about how sucky domestic F is compared to the great overseas carriers. The cattle call eliminates seat-position squabbles, too; the aisle seats go to the swift, so hit the gym.

  • Carol

    I think it’s wonderful what the SW employee did for them during such a terrible time. I only wish other carriers treated people the same way. As one poster mentioned, the reason this is a big story is because this type of service and civility is all too rare these days. I have a mother and 5-year old daughter traveling to Entebbe on DL/KL 3Aug. They booked their tickets back in March. There are 7 other people on the same flights and I worked hard to get them all seated together. I got them good seats back in March. Two days ago KL went in the record and moved the mother and daughter into middle seats in the middle section on 1 leg and aisle and middle in the back of the plane on another leg. I spent 40mins on the phone with our DL support desk. The bottom line after that call was that there had been an equipment change. Not true… there was no change to either of those flights and the plane configuration was exactly the same. None of the other passengers on the same flights had their seats changed. I then contacted my DL rep and after 2 days of working on it told me that those seats had just been changed by KLM to “preferred seats” and there was nothing he could do. I knew that what happened was a frequent flyer with elite status booked late and demanded better seats so they moved my clients out of their pre-assigned seats to give them to the elite member. This is disgusting behavior on every level. I spent 2 days trying everything I could think of to help them but to no avail. The flights are full and there is nothing I can do for them. The DL rep offered them each a $200 voucher for future travel but only if they would agree the matter was settled. I doubt they will want to travel with DL again.There’s nothing wrong with giving perks to the elite members, but it should not be done at the cost of someone who booked early in order to get good seats. The mother and daughter rarely travel and wanted to be seated close to the others traveling with them. This is a horrible way to treat a passenger who did nothing wrong.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    You’re 100% correct. I misspoke

  • $16635417

    Had something similar happen on the old Northwest to some family members. They were enroute home from a funeral and word came that another family member had suddenly passed away in an accident. A call was made to the 800 number to please get the message to the passengers when they were changing planes in Minneapolis. Northwest was able to meet them (a father and three young kids) at the gate and put them on a flight right back to where they just left from, they even got the bags back on the flight. The employees at the local station then re-arranged their original tickets to get them back home after funeral number two. No additional costs, even an offer to pay a change fee or for another trip were rebuked.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    That’s absolutely terrible. While so called elites should have preference to seats. Once those seats have been issued to passengers they should be off-limits.

  • Carol

    My thoughts exactly, which is why I fought so hard to get their seats back. This kind of treatment is deplorable and the sad thing is that I was unable to help them. Some think seat assignments are no big deal, but when you are on a long flight a bad seat can make it that much more uncomfortable. I told them to ask at every check-in point to see if anything had opened up and to take my first itinerary where it showed they had those seats confirmed. I’m hoping something will open up for them but it’s doubtful.