“The first agent he talked with told him that there was space” on the flight, Hough remembers, urging him to “run” to the gate. “But when he got to the gate, the door was closed and despite empty seats, the agent there told him that he couldn’t board, although the plane didn’t leave for another 15 minutes.”
I asked United about its policy of holding aircraft, and a representative said that it has recently been revised to allow gate agents to selectively allow passengers to board even after the doors have officially been closed. To be clear, the pressure for an on-time departure is still there, but agents will now be “empowered” to bend a rule when appropriate.
Holding a plane for the right passenger can be a public relations coup for an airline. Consider what happened when Southwest Airlines held a flight from Los Angeles to Tucson in 2011, which I also reported on my site. Passenger Mark Dickinson needed to say a final goodbye to his 2½-year-old grandson, who was about to be taken off life support. Hearing of his plight, the Southwest pilot held the plane for 12 minutes.
“They can’t go anywhere without me, and I wasn’t going anywhere without you,” the pilot told Dickinson when he reached the gate.
Keeping a plane at the gate may be the ultimate way to say, “We care.” It requires that an employee ignore years of training and be willing to face real consequences on an upcoming performance review. The message is unmistakable: You’re important to us. Really important. Whether you’re on vacation or flying home to see a dying relative, you’re special. And we’re in the business of transporting people, after all.
“Passengers ask us to hold the plane all the time,” says Heather Poole, a flight attendant for a major airline. Almost as often, the request is denied, unless a significant number of passengers need to connect with the same flight. “On-time departures are way too important,” Poole adds.
Personally, I’d love to report a few more planes-being-held stories.
They suggest that airline employees truly understand that their customers are more than dollars to the bottom line — they’re passengers.
But something tells me that these stories will remain exceedingly rare, which means that maybe travelers should find another way of determining whether their airline really loves them.
E-mail Christopher Elliott at email@example.com.