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.

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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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