Southwest Airlines pilot holds plane for murder victim’s family

It’s easy to be an airline industry critic in an era of “no waivers, no favors” and fees on top of fees. It’s easy to paint airlines as heartless corporations that treat us like self-loading cargo.

But every now and then, you hear a story that turns you into an adoring fan. Like Nancy’s story.

Before I continue, I should mention a few things: Nancy is a faithful reader of this site, and I agreed to use only her first name because of the brutal nature of the crime and the age of the victim. Second, I’m not an emotional, John Boehner-type, but I can’t read her story without getting a little teary.

So you’ve been warned: Grab a tissue.

Last night, my husband and I got the tragic news that our three-year-old grandson in Denver had been murdered by our daughter’s live-in boyfriend.

He is being taken off life support tonight at 9 o’clock and his parents have opted for organ donation, which will take place immediately. Over 25 people will receive his gift tonight and many lives will be saved.

This morning, after only a couple hours sleep, my husband and I began to make all arrangements to get him to Denver to be with our daughter. He is currently on business in LA and is flying Southwest.

While his employer, Northrop Grumman, made arrangements to get his ticket changed so he could get to Tucson today (which he had to do in order to not spend any extra money) I called Southwest to arrange his flight from Tucson to Denver so he would be stepping off one plane and getting on another.

He has several free flights with them so I couldn’t really do it on the website. The ticketing agent was holding back tears throughout the call. I’m actually her step-mother and it’s much more important for my husband to be there than for me to be there.

In LAX, the lines to both check a bag and get through security were exceptional. He got to the airport two hours early and was still late getting to his plane.

Every step of the way, he’s on the verge of tears and trying to get assistance from both TSA and Southwest employees to get to his plane on time.

According to him, everyone he talked to couldn’t have cared less. When he was done with security, he grabbed his computer bag, shoes and belt and ran to his terminal in his stocking feet.

When he got there, the pilot of his plane and the ticketing agent both said, “Are you Mark? We held the plane for you and we’re so sorry about the loss of your grandson.”

The pilot held the plane that was supposed to take off at 11:50 until 12:02 when my husband got there.

As my husband walked down the Jetway with the pilot, he said, “I can’t thank you enough for this.”

The pilot responded with, “They can’t go anywhere without me and I wasn’t going anywhere without you. Now relax. We’ll get you there. And again, I’m so sorry.”

My husband was able to take his first deep breath of the day.

I don’t know any other airline that would have done this.

I’m speechless. Twelve minutes may not sound like a lot to you or me, but every second counts when you’re an airline. Southwest can turn an entire plane around in about 20 minutes, so 12 minutes is half an eternity.

I shared Nancy’s story with Southwest, and a representative said the airline was “proud” of the way the pilot had held the flight. Again, most airlines would punish an employee who holds up the line for any reason.

My Monday post is normally called, “Can this trip be saved?” But today I’m sharing a trip that was saved amid tragic circumstances by a compassionate pilot and an airline that supported his decision to hold a flight.

Good work, Southwest!

(Photo: gwil more/Flickr Creative Commons)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at

  • datgrrl

    Despite all of the negative press regarding SW Airlines, it’s good to see a positive story about them, enev if the circumstances were not so positive.

  • I am sorry about your loss. 
    This article was very heart-warming and sad at the same time. 

  • Alex Stofa

    Voted best vacation read of the summer 2011


    Cruise by Alex Stofa

    When retired airline pilot Mac Knight and counselor Lynn
    Baker plan their three month summer cruise to the Bahamas, Both Lynn’s and Mac’s
    past bring a new dimension into their plans and into their cruise.

    Their passion keeps their romance together.

    But is their passion enough as Mac succumbs to keeping his
    past alive and as Lynn tries to avoid the advances of her past love?















  • Lobatosarah

    Great Job, Pilot, and Northwest!!!!  I have flown them and never had a problem, and that’s the truth!

  • What a terrific story.  Thanks for sharing.  It is so rare that a company employee does such a wonderful thing – and even more rare that it is ever shared publicly.  I’m a big Southwest fan and this just adds to the reasons that I love this airline.

    I’d love to share this with more people but I don’t see many share options on your post.  I pressed the tweet and share buttons but I’m not sure they even worked.  It didn’t give me the typical opportunity to see and edit my post.  There was no option for emailing this story to another.   Perhaps you limit the options for a brilliant strategic reason.  Just wondering.

  • Southwest has been my airline airline of choice for quite a while, and your story underlines what I have known for years.

  • Southwest has been my airline airline of choice for quite a while, and your story underlines what I have known for years.

  • Rjbj

    I am sorry for your loss
    … and Yes I have the tissues next to me as i read your brief… the tissues were used and it just goes to show us all that there are good people in this world and they do make up for the not-so-good people

  • Backpackersantiago

    I am sure you mean a non-stop flight and not a direct flight. They are totally different.

  • Another reason I like to fly Southwest

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  • Nice work Southwest! I love flying you guys, can’t wait until you have international flights.

  • sandra jennings

    Sincere condolences to Nancy, appreciation for Chris in repeating a most meaningful story and congratulations to Southwest for doing the very right thing. cheap flights  

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  • can’t wait until SouthWest comes to Charlotte.

  • God Bless the pilot and SWA for doing something so wonderful. My prayers are with the family.

  • travelqueen2

    Southwest is awesome.  Their pilots are awesome, their cabin crews are awesome.  This doesn’t surprise me, but it does brighten my day, especially after my British Airways fiasco on the weekend…

  • TexanPatriot1

    Just don’t show too much breast.

  • judyserienagy

    It’s difficult to work when you’re crying.  This is truly a story about the goodness of human beings, I hope the Southwest pilot is recognized for his compassion and guts … indeed a 12 minute delay at SW is a huge deal.  Hopefully this story will alleviate the family’s sorrow a bit.

  • I am booking tickets today. Shopping Southwest.

  • To the family there are no words that can be said to make this pain go away. I can’t imagine the punishment for the guy who did this. Death Penalty is too easy and life in prison doesn’t do it either. And whoever you are if you can prove your the actual family send us a message and you have 2 free round-trip airfare tickets any destination in the world @ . Really it is the pilot that deserves the attention not South West, as he would have held the plane no matter what brand airline. But, Southwest is a great airline and we know if anyone would stand by this they would.

  • Julie, as a result of Chris posting the column about his first 5,000 posts, I was re-reading some of the comments here.

    Needless to say, this has been a rough road for our family, compounded by the fact it took nearly two years for the scum who did this to come to trial. Happily, he was found guilty of all charges and will spend the rest of his life in prison, w/o the possibility of parole.

    My reason for commenting to you is: I’ve been extremely angry since this happened and am only just starting to come back from it and I saw your posting here. Based on what you said here, I, too, plan to make more decisions like this that mean not a lot to me but the world to someone else.

    It’s like I tell my kids – a small, random act of kindness has a ripple effect and has the ability to change several people beyond the one whose world you changed.

    Thank you for helping me see this as a better way to move forward.

  • He was in a meeting with members of the Pentagon that started early and since his travel plans hadn’t been arranged, yet, he opted to fill his mind with something other than the death of his grandson. You need to stop thinking of how life’s events effect you so much and focus on the world as a whole. We are all passengers on the same terra firma.

  • Sorry it took me so long to see this but, two weeks ago, the person who killed our grandson was found guilty of all charges and given life in prison w/o the possibility of parole. He was found guilty of two counts of child abuse resulting in death and one count of Murder in the 1st degree.

  • mike keller

    2 great stories regarding airline passenger consideration. I had a similar situation years ago with American Airlines when my dear associate was dying in Spain.
    Its really nice to see that there are still those who will stretch the rules to help those in distress and need.
    Good on you United and Southwest, although the real praise should be directed to the individual employees of those companies that went the extra mile.

  • That is AWESOME!

  • Cedarglen

    I found this post via a 3rd-order link, but glad that I did. This is NOT about Southwest, but about a handful of considerate, very human folks. We salute the wonderful captain and we know that there were many others who contributed to this positive outcome – and I salute ALL of them.
    That said… Someone at Southwest understood that this event would eventually hit the press and probably thought, “Let’s make a splash…” They did and they are entitled to their kudos, every one of them. If it had not **already** become a press-worthy ‘news item,’ that same captain would probably have done the famous Carpet Dance before his chief pilot for delaying he flight and screwing up the day’s schedule. Major kudos to the captain – and to others at Southwest for their empathy in this case, but please don’t even begin to believe that this is the norm at Southwest – or any other airline. It is not! If not for the great PR value, they would not have delayed that flight. And my best, most sincere thanks to the captain and the others at Southwest who made it all happen – even if for the wrong reasons. Even in the airline business, there really are a few, very human-like individuals who give a damn. The PAX made his final visit with his grandson and for him, of course, nothing else matters. The 21-minute delay of one Southwest flight won’t change their monthly stats and the positive press value cannot be measured. My empathy to grandpa and thanks to Southwest, but – don’t expect this to become regular behavior from them or any other airline; it just cannot happen.

  • ExplorationTravMag

    Sunnie –

    Yes, Chris confirmed it while I was living through it. And it didn’t happen in Denver (see? You don’t know everything..) It happened in Aurora.

    Wow, I can’t believe you’re saying this and REALLY can’t believe you can’t find anything about this… But, here ya go.

    Oh, and BTW, Theodore Madrid, nearly two years to the date of his killing Caden, received life in prison w/o the possibility of parole plus 96 years. You can look him up in the Colorado Department of Corrections website – click on “Inmates” at the top of the page…

    It’s sad, really, that people like you have access to a keyboard where you can spew your venom anywhere you wish.

  • ExplorationTravMag

    Caden was only a couple weeks from his 3rd birthday at the time this happened. We had already started saying he was “Nearly 3”. In my hyper state at the time I wrote you, Chris, I, too, didn’t think it was worth squabbling over, so I wrote “Three-year-old”.

    But, there’s always one in the crowd, who DOES like to squabble over minutiae, isn’t there?

  • ExplorationTravMag

    Uh, nope… That’s not the pilot’s name nor is that where he’s from. Nice try, though.

  • ExplorationTravMag

    Yeah, you caught us. We had Theodore Madrid kill our grandson so we could help SWA set this whole thing up as a PR stunt.

    I never in a million years thought we’d get caught at that! Thanks, me, for keeping us honest!

  • Grant Ritchie

    I’m sorry for your loss. :-(

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