The travel industry shows its kinder, gentler side

Columnist December 15, 2011

Sometimes when you travel, it’s the little gestures of compassion that make the biggest difference — especially during the holidays.

For Becky Brand, it was the bus driver on Washington’s L2 line who went out of his way to help her during Thanksgiving week. “While I was struggling with a heavy suitcase in the rain, he made my day by stopping to let me on instead of having me run to the bus stop a block away,” says Brand, who works for a legal advocacy group in the capital. “Although a small and random act of kindness, it made my holiday week and definitely gave me something to be thankful for.”

Jenny Block remembers the nameless American Airlines employee who answered her plea on Twitter. Her cousin had been left in a coma after a traffic accident, and she needed the airline to bend a flight change rule. Block, a writer who lives in Dallas, received an immediate reply: Of course the airline would help her.

“You won’t believe this part,” she told me. “It happened on Thanksgiving morning.”

Oh no, that part I would believe.

See, that’s the funny thing about the travel industry. For a business that, with a few notable exceptions, thinks nothing of offending its customers most of the year, the short-lived transformation during the holidays is incredible. It’s as if someone turned back the clock and made common courtesy and customer service important again.

And it cuts both ways. This is the time of year when you hear about customers committing random acts of kindness, too.

When Natalie Caine, a counselor from Toluca Lake, Calif., saw the woman in front of her at the airport coffee shop come up a few dollars short as she tried to buy snacks for her children, Caine covered her tab. “I know the stress of parenting and travel,” she says.

Joellen Freeman, an administrative assistant from Lexington, S.C., was flying from Cleveland to Atlanta when she witnessed a remarkable seat switch. “A gentleman came up to a soldier,” she remembers. “He introduced himself and then asked the soldier about his seat assignment. He then traded seats with the soldier — giving up his first class seat for one in coach as an expression of his gratitude for the service of the young man. It was very touching.”

Not all these gestures are spontaneous, but that doesn’t make them any less remarkable.

Jessica Langley, a flight attendant based in Columbus, Ohio, spends the year collecting soaps and shampoos in hotels. She recently drove from her home in Palm Beach, Fla., to Orlando to deliver 55 pounds of toiletries to a charity called Clean the World, which is dedicated to helping stop the spread of fatal diseases worldwide. “To me, it’s a no-brainer,” she says. “A few extra ounces in my carry-on luggage can have a big impact.”

At the Sheraton Kauai, employees donated 1,000 pounds of food to the Hawaii Food Bank for Thanksgiving. Then, for good measure, they threw in the keys to the van. “This effort has led to the resort designating a Food Bank Table in the hotel’s restaurant each day where proceeds from that table will be donated to the Hawaii Food Bank,” says Jonathan Pappas, a spokesman for the resort.

I don’t know about you, but I love hearing about how the travel industry goes out of its way to be charitable year-round. As a consumer advocate who deals with complaints all the time, these stories give me hope. Because charitable giving and good customer service often go hand-in-hand, they make me believe that one day, this industry will again compete on customer service and not just price.

But the niceness can also make me feel a little awkward, particularly when it comes from a place where you’d least expect it. Hearing about an act of compassion from an employee of a discount airline or from an online agency that routes all customer complaints to an overseas call center can be downright jarring.

Or even, from the TSA.

But there I was, just a week after Thanksgiving, waiting curbside for my family to pick me up at the airport. When they arrived, I brought one bag over to the car, and when I turned around, I saw an off-duty Transportation Security Administration agent standing there with my second bag.

I don’t think he knew that he’d just assisted one of the agency’s most vocal critics with his luggage. It made the gesture all the more meaningful.

I was speechless. All I could manage was a timid, “Thank you.”

The agent smiled and said, “Welcome home.”

Elliott is National Geographic Traveler magazine’s reader advocate. E-mail him at chris@elliott.org.

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