United Airlines holds plane so passenger can say goodbye to his dying mother

United Airlines holds plane

Kerry Drake’s mother was dying. She’d suffered from rheumatoid arthritis for decades and the drugs used to treat her condition had decimated her immune system. One morning his brother called him to say her time had come. Drake caught the next United Airlines flight from San Francisco, where he works for the federal government, to Lubbock, Texas, via Houston.

“I knew this itinerary was a risk because the stopover in Houston was only about 40 minutes, and my connecting flight was the last flight to Lubbock that day,” he says. “But I needed to get there as soon as possible, so I took the risk.”

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A delayed United Airlines flight

As it turns out, United Airlines flight 667 was delayed leaving San Francisco. Drake was visibly distraught. You can’t prepare for a moment like this but now came the very real possibility that he wouldn’t have the chance to see his mother before she passed away.

A flight attendant, Sofia Lares, tried to comfort him. “She said she would do everything she could and brought extra napkins for my tears,” Drake says.

Another flight attendant, Lan Chung, asked for Drake’s flight number and relayed it to the captain.

Flight 667 made up some time en route to Houston, but not enough. By the time Drake’s plane landed, his connecting United Airlines flight had left the gate. At least that’s what he thought.

United Airlines to the rescue

“As I was running up to the gate, the gate agent saw me coming and shouted, ‘Mr. Drake? We’ve been expecting you’,” he said. “That’s when I knew they had conspired to help me. She waved me onto the plane without looking at my boarding pass.”

United Airlines had held the aircraft for him. Not only did he make it to Lubbock as scheduled, but so did his luggage.

“Had I missed my United Airlines flight to Lubbock, I would not have been able to tell my mom goodbye,” Drake said. “When she died, I realized I was wiping away my tears with the extra United Airlines napkins that Sofia had given me the day before.”

Forever grateful to United Airlines

Drake says he’s grateful to the flight crew that made his farewell possible, including the attendants on his San Francisco flight and Denver-based captain Edward Goldstein and Dirk Chilian, the flight’s first officer. He also thanks Houston customer service rep Marie Robertson and all the Houston baggage handlers who got his luggage to his final destination.

It’s been a few years since we’ve had an airline hold a flight for a passenger in need. Nice work, United.

This story, first published in 2013, is our most visited article ever. That means a lot. Amid all the bad news that my advocates and I receive here every day, it’s nice to see a company doing the right thing — and being recognized for it.

88 thoughts on “United Airlines holds plane so passenger can say goodbye to his dying mother

  1. It is so pleasing that United went the extra mile for this passenger. However, numerous personal experiences indicate that United do not normally do this sort of thing.

    1. I don’t really want to rain on the parade, as it’s a good story, but it’s possible that United held the plane simply because the connection was the last of the day and they do want to allow connecting passengers to make it to their destination, regardless of special reasons. If the original cause of the delay was mechanical, United would be on the hook for overnight accomodation in Houston (along with any other passengers connecting from that flight). By holding the connecting flights for a few minutes, they saved this expense at a much smaller marginal cost of a few flights departing later. (Pilots and crew only get paid by flying hours, so there isn’t much extra cost to United in holding a flight a small amount, as long as it doesn’t cause knock-on effects to other flights, which is less likely at the end of the day.) The fact that the luggage also made the connection implies it wasn’t really THAT close a connection.

      1. Consider this scenario: FLT.NO LEG DEP TR ARRIVAL TR EQP CITY CT MCT
        #UA1588 SFO IAH 1212P 3 601P C 738
        #UA4259 IAH LBB 650P A 824P ERJ IAH DD 40

        Scheduled connection time was only 49 minutes with a minimum connection time of 40 minutes.

      2. Umm did you see the part where the guy was running to his connecting flight and the gate attendant didn’t even bother to ask for his ticket because she addressed him personally? Yeah good call. Oh and not to be honest or anything but anytime anyone says “I don’t really want to rain on the parade…” be prepared for them to do just that. Same goes for “No offense but”, “With all due respect”, etc.

        1. I don’t disagree that the message from the Captain likely made it back to the gate agent, which is fine. My point was that the actual decision to hold the connecting flight was made by a dispatcher, likely out of concern for the company’s bottom line in terms of being responsible for overnight lodging costs for any/all misconnecting passengers. It probably *wasn’t* made as a result of this specific “dying mother” plea – though the gate agent may have led him to believe that because it couldn’t hurt. (There’s no reason for the gate agent to come out and say, “Oh Mr. Drake, we’ve been waiting for you – we actually don’t care about your mother, but please get to your flight in a hurry because we don’t want to pay for your misconnect” – even though that’s actually probably the situation.) In fact, it’s really fairly common for gate agents to be aware of specific passengers on short connections and being ready to help direct passengers there, even without messages sent ahead via the flight crew.

          Fair point about the “I don’t want to rain on the parade” comment – I’ll be more careful about using that in the future. I guess what I was trying to say is that I’m hoping I won’t personally be thought of as insensitive for merely pointing out the airline’s motive is likely profit, not compassion, even if they managed to pass it off as being sensitive.

  2. We need more of these good news stories from air travel. Lord knows most of it is dreadful (and rightfully so).

  3. Finally a story about airlines and staff that have heart. I know its a hard business to be in and I know so many negative things are said but its nice to know that this story shows that there are people behind the big name airlines that care. Way to go United.

  4. Tomorrow: the letter to Chris from an angry passenger on the Houston-to-Lubbock flight who was late to an evening event because the airline had the gall to hold up the flight.

    1. Actually, I saw something similar happen! A distraught passenger was late getting to the airport and the airline decided to check her in and take a delay of a few minutes in order to get her to her home for a similar situation. That small delay triggered another air traffic delay and another passenger then missed THEIR connection to get home to see a dying loved one. The first passenger was home when we got to the hub…the other person missed the connection. I don’t know if they ever got to see their loved one, but the mood of doing something good for someone quickly changed when the staff realized what happened and denied the connecting passenger (who, even under the stress they were going through, made it to the airport on time) a chance to get home that night, not to mention the inconvenience of other connecting passengers who missed their flights that night.

      In this case, it works out because the aircraft probably ended the night in Lubbock. I would LOVE to see the letter from someone who missed seeing their 3rd cousin’s neighbor’s hairdresser’s manicurist trying to sing on American Idol because of the delay that night!

      1. It was a nice gesture, but there’s always that mentioned by Noah. With thousands of people dying every single day and people flying to be with them, there is a huge risk of every delay having a good chance of having this effect.
        It was thoughtful of United, but at the same time, it is a risky thing to do.
        Condolences to the passenger upon the loss of his mother.

      2. mikegun – i’m not doubting the validity of your story, however in the example from this article that would not have been the case. Since Lubbock is not a hub, United would never route someone through Lubbock as a connecting city. In other words, delaying that flight to Lubbock would not have caused any of the passengers to miss a connection. I am sure United factored that into their decision to hold the flight 20 minutes.

        1. I think the bigger reason they were able to hold it is because it was the last flight of the night. Had it been a flight during the day, wherever the aircraft was continuing to would have run the risk of being delayed. For example, if the aircraft were returning to Houston and a late arrival from Houston delayed customers from Lubbock to Houston that could possibly put some of those connections at risk. (United serves Denver as well, I haven’t checked, but if the aircraft continues to Denver, could also be a problem as well for missed connections.)

          In my case, not considering the repercussions of the action caused consequences. I’m sure everyone thought they were doing the right thing. A delay into a hub is a problem.

          I’ve been on many last flights of the night from a hub and, as others have said, it’s not unusual to wait for connecting passengers.

    2. Bravo for United, and it’s GREAT for the one passenger.

      Very risky move by United — certainly they can’t be aware that another passenger might be rushing to get to a dying parent, and the extra minutes count.

      But the lives of over 100 people were on hold for their generosity — that might mean people going over on their parking and owe an extra day. People who might have other transit connections, maybe not on United. People idling at the airport waiting even longer for their loved ones. This isn’t about United eating costs – they have the power to make that decision. It’s about that decision’s impact on EVERYBODY else. People who have no say in the decision. Maybe most would agree, but, United doesn’t have the right to decide that for them.

      It is ALWAYS better to stick to the schedule, that’s the contract with the passenger.

      United broke it and let one single person impact the lives of over 100. It’s wrong.

      The best customer service an airline can give? NEVER be late and ALWAYS deliver the luggage. Never run out of drinks and snacks. Never be too hot or too cold, and never put anybody by someone who is too uncomfortable. That doesn’t include trolling for headlines. Go above and behind EVERY DAY, not just transfer the burden from one passenger to 100.

      1. Sorry to have to tell you this, but the carriers do this all the time. It isn’t wrong to help someone if you can….just look at the responses to that nurse who refused to give the 87 year old lady CPR the other day and the woman died. I guess you are one of those who don’t pull over for an emergency vehicle as it will keep you from you destination by a few seconds 🙁

        1. i’d be pissed if i were 87 and someone did cpr on me. that nurse did the right thing. bet you wish terry schiavo were still around, too.

      2. Perhaps the 100 people would have been delighted to be a part of this unreasonable act of kindness… and maybe inspired to go commit more unreasonable acts of kindness themselves…

  5. I wish this were the rule, rather than the exception, feel good stories in the news. For so long, we see gloom, doom and “the sky is falling”. I’m so sorry for what the OP was/is going through but so glad the airline chose to accommodate his family emergency. It’s times like these that change people lives.

    1. I’m glad it’s the exception. I’ve been on plenty of flights that were held for one reason or another, and as much as I feel for a guy trying to get home for one reason or another, I’ve still spent good money on a ticket to get me, on time, to where I’m going.

      1. Matty, please go back and read my posting. In short, I was commenting on it being a “feel good” story, not you and how it would have inconvenienced you were you on the plane.

        1. There has to be one in every group that thinks it is all about them. The delay wasn’t much, the crew helped a passenger reach their dying parent and everyone reached Lubbock safely.

          1. I’m with you, Bodega, especially since it was only just over two years ago since Southwest did something similar for my family. Knowing what that’s like, being on the short end of a rushed flight to get to a dying loved one, I’ll give them all the time in the world.

  6. What a wonderful story. As a 1K I often have issues with UA, but bottom line it is the front line employees who make or break the airline. Everyone involved deserves kudos for all that they did to help Mr. Drake in his time of need. And sadly UA probably takes a hit for a delayed departure. Thanks Chris for posting the positive stories–they do happen ocassionally and pointing them out may help them perpetuate.

  7. Great job United Airlines for doing the right thing. Elliott, you are so amazing. Thanks for posting this wonderful article.

  8. So good to read a positive story of humane response to a customer’s need. Thank you and congratulations United

  9. It was nice of United to do that…but how do we know that someone else wasn’t delayed on a flight to see their dying loved one?

    1. Statistics. Its the difference between knowing for certain that someone will not arrive in time to see his dying loved one(s), versus the possibility that there might be someone, somewhere in a similiar position that the delay, might affect.

      1. It’s actually probability, not statistics. For every additional person on the plane and every minute the flight was delayed, the probability that a hardship was created for someone else increased. The question is whether this was a five minute delay for 50 passengers or a 30 minute delay for 200?

        1. The story wrote:

          Not only did he make it to Lubbock as scheduled, but so did his luggage.

          The flight from IAH-LBB landed on time despite waiting for him. No harm done.
          Way to go United. You deserve a medal. Excellent story.

          1. I don’t think the article says the flight landed on time but that the luggage got there as it should have. However, with a 40 minute gap in between flights and Mr. Drake running for the flight, I do get the impression that the flight was delayed no more than a few minutes. The flight is only 1.5 hours so I’m guessing it ultimately did land very close to on schedule, was pushed up to first place for unloading etc. I’m doubting any other passengers were inconvenienced by the delay and if they had any compassion, they were glad they could be a part of this awesome story.

          2. I Buy your Idea Aimee H. Great story here- really tourching especially for those who live far from their loved ones knowing such circumstances could meet them some day. I´d like to know that there are people or companies out there who can do that extra effort and go that extra mile just to ease the burden of some suffering customer (s).

  10. Nice story and kudos to the United crews. From personal experience, I would bet that the passenger landed in either C or E terminal then had to make it ASAP (via the tram) to the B terminal. No other way to get there and typically it can take anywhere from 5-10 minutes just to get to B terminal from A or C/E, so this wasn’t just a minor inconvenience.

    I also know that United doesn’t hold squat at Houston – my inbound flight was 30 minutes late, I had to make the mad dash from B to C and missed the flight by 1 minute. I could see the jetway starting to push back from the aircraft and the United Club concierge had to rebook me on a later flight.

    1. As a clarification, I flew in on an RJ from a neighboring state and since I missed the tram as I got upstairs, it took about 10+ minutes for me to get to the C concourse, then more time to run to the C gate. I believe the United connection time was somewhere around 45 minutes.

  11. That was Continental Airlines that held the plane. IAH to Lubbock is a CAL route. Old UAL would not do that. CAL treats the customer with dignity and repect. The old ual are very rude to customers. The CAL ceo is sending them to carm school to teach them that their pay comes from the customers.

    1. That was exactly my reaction. When I saw the headline on the article, I suspected that Continental personnel would be involved. The Houston connection clinched it. I feared that the merger would destroy the morale of the old CAL staff. It’s nice to be proven wrong!

      1. CO staff still tries. That’s more than I can say for the old UA staff. I have never run into a more sour bunch that probably should have retired long ago than the old UA airport employees. I always try to choose the former CO planes when ever I fly UA these days. With their union contracts, the former CO and former UA flight crews can’t fly on the other planes (yet).

    2. I believe IAH-LBB is flown by regionals. To be specific, Express Jet. Not sure Continental or United corporate culture had any effect on the contract carrier. Aren’t regionals paid to be on time? What do you think?

  12. I appreciate the effort to do something nice for someone but I disagree with the execution. There’s a ripple effect from an action like this and it’s undeniable that many people were adversely affected by it (beyond just the passengers on the plane), perhaps even someone else with a similar circumstance who didn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve and therefore wasn’t catered to. Maybe the originating flight was delayed was for the exact same reason. Whether it’s flight times or life in general, I believe in sticking to the schedule unless you’ve confirmed with every person affected that it’s acceptable to change the schedule. If that had happened from the start, this wouldn’t even be a story because the flight would have arrived on time for him to make his connection.

    1. I’ll add that this article didn’t mention how long the second flight was held up. If it was just a few minutes, it probably didn’t have a major impact on others. But another poster mentioned it would take about 5-10 minutes to switch gates and there was 40 minutes for the guy to make the connection. Since he presumed the plane had already left, that suggests a significant delay, maybe as much as 30 minutes. To me, that’s unacceptable except in a circumstance where the delay could actually save a life.

      1. According to the internet that flight is usually around 1.5 hours. I think perhaps you have no heart. I hope you are never in a similar situation

  13. I’m glad it worked out for Mr. Drake. I just can’t figure out why, knowing that the 40 minute gap between flights was going to be tight, he bothered to check any luggage at all. That just added to the stress of everyone involved, especially since most travelers could have easily packed at least four day’s worth of underwear in carry-on.

  14. I must say that incidents such as this are commendable. Is this due to to the specific employess involved or the companies policy to “delight” the customer. I beleive that these employees should be rewarded from United since if there were more of these type of “going above and beyond” occurences by united, they would defintely make them the prefered airline for my travels. At the moment, since the merger, I have experience several disappointments in their service. I hope this trend of service continues to be the United policy.

  15. A United agent and crew out of LGA did a very similar thing for me – in a true moment of crisis you see the values of a company come through and I’d like to think that there are many other examples of United taking this type of action without publicity. Yes, we can all focus on fees, delays and other inconveniences, but actually trusting a company to be more than a logo or annual report is something that isn’t recognized enough.

  16. Dont mean to rain on your parade, but I’m a giant douche and have to find the negative in everything.


    Half the commenters

  17. Thanks for sharing this story, I sure wish more people knew about stuff like this. As a pilot with one of United’s regional partners, I can tell you firsthand that, yes, this kind of thing happens every day and no, it doesn’t get talked about too much because we call it ‘doing our job’. If we are running late for whatever reason and there are passengers that have spoken up about a desire to make connections that are going to be close (again, I personally don’t care if their mother is dying or if their dog just needs to go out for a walk when they get home), I’m on the radio talking with the folks at the station letting them know exactly what the situation is and coordinating as much as possible. Can every flight get held? No, of course it can’t. But more do than most folks would imagine, and at the very least communicating about this stuff can help customer service work on getting everyone’s travel plans re-organized in the event that they miss a connection.

    Biggest advice? Speak up! Concerned about missing a connection? Talk to the gate agent at the departure airport before you even know you’re going to be late. Talk to the crew while you’re in the air. And if, when you do arrive at the destination, things have transpired to give you five minutes to get off of one airplane, run to another part of the airport, and be on another one, do yourself a favor and find a gate agent AS SOON as you get off the first airplane and tell them to call ahead to your connecting gate and let them know you’re coming. Missed connections are terrible headaches for gate and customer service agents, so if they know you’re on the ground and running to make the connection, as long as they haven’t closed the door yet, they will most likely WAIT for you to get there because that is less work than trying to find you a seat on another flight later.

    And as for everyone making comments about inconveniencing the rest of the airplane for one passenger; frankly I couldn’t give a damn about waiting five or ten minutes at a busy airport like Houston or Los Angeles, etc., because the probability that we get stuck behind another airplane that needs to start engines or sit in line for the runway or have to deal with ATC needing us to slow down enroute for other air traffic is pretty great anyway. So if given the choice between waiting ten minutes for a connection, or closing the door and then holding at the gate for ten minutes for taxiway congestion (while, from the flight deck, we can see into the gate area, where the passenger we left is very irate/frustrated/sad), I think a good majority of us would try to get the customer on board the airplane.

    Fly safe out there folks!

  18. Kudos to United. As for the 45 minute layover, I won’t go there. I’ve done the OJ Simpson dash over the baggage at O’Hara when I was young enough to

    still hurdle them, and I still missed my connection. If anything is to be taken from this story, I hope it is this: Don’t wait until your mother is dying to go see her.
    She would treasure the visit MUCH MORE if she is lucid.

  19. You guys are talking about the flight delay ripple effect as though the flight was going to be on time in the first place. Have any of you ever actually flown on United?

    Still, two thumbs up for the people who got involved to make a difference in this family’s lives.

  20. “That’s when I knew they had conspired to help me. She waved me onto the plane without looking at my boarding pass.” ….. Anddddd he just got her fired 🙁 whomp whomp

  21. Chris, the problem with your “award” (assuming all the “exceptional” stated circumstances such as holding the last flight of the day – by the way, quite routine – but you state is extraordinary) is that you reward an entire humongous profit-first Corporation for the actions of a few compassionate individuals in charge at the right time & right place. Ask yourself if this would happen 10 times out of 10, then maybe there would be a trend. Statisticians say you need a minimum of 30 occurrences of any event before you can drawn any conclusions…

  22. Wonderful news. United is my least favorite airline. Maybe it was that great Texas hospitality at work. The tone of some of your readers sucks. Everyone of the people responding here should never have said a word after writing “But…”. but nothing.

  23. What i dont understand is she was not dying suddenly and was about to kick the bucket for months and he decides to do a last minute flight ????????????

  24. On the flip side, I was flying home PHL to FLL trying to make it in time to see my dying aunt (we’re a close Irish family). My US Air flight was late leaving because of an irate passenger who felt slighted by a US Air terminal employee (I watched the entire encounter and felt the passenger was 95% wrong). The passenger demanded a rep come on board so she could complain and it took forever (unfortunately I was seated directly in front of her and heard the whole thing). I finally got up to ask the flight attendants why we were delayed, burst into tears and had to excuse myself to the bathroom. Thankfully we finally started pulling away from the gate as I was pulling myself together. Even though I know there is time built in to flights to accommodate delays, we were still late.

    It turned out that I missed seeing my aunt by an hour or so, more time than caused by the delay. Had it been due to the delay, I would have felt much worse. Remember that if you ever feel like delaying a flight for a complaint.

    Ironically, I think I would have been fine with the flight being delayed so someone could make it in time to see their dying mother, but that’s only because my aunt was unconscious.

  25. I had a concert/presentation on February 27th in Houston. I’m a producer of soundtrack and short-films and a huge amount of equipment and people flying from NYC and LAX were attending the presentation. I woke up, on Saturday, checked my e-mail, send all e-mails to production managers and staff to confirm the event, and at 10:00am local time I got an email to proceed with the web check in from UA. As I completed the web-checking, I saw that my flight to Houston was canceled and I was sent to go to Washington. Facts:

    *The UA Airplane was grounded without flight conditions since Friday, the 26th.

    *UA has all means of getting in touch with me to advice, at least the day
    before, the problem.

    *About US$150K in equipment rental had to be paid, due to UA flight

    *UA offered me a US$500 voucher or 0,33% of my financial and professional image damage.

    There were no efforts whatsoever to resolve my problem. I called the customer
    center, opened a protocol number to track and register the occurrence.

    After all, nothing was done by UA. Just that, Nothing! How about that for UA?

  26. In 2007 flying SEA-OHR on United we were weather delayed. United held the OHR-LHR connection for us and poured on the coal to get us to London for connection to EBB on BA. Thanks United!

  27. Customer Care should be designed into the United product/service not randomly distributed through their system as it is now. This is just one more bad/poor example of how they actually run that company. Leave the terminal on schedule and thus honour the contract with the customers who made the flight on time. It is the simple principle of ‘duty of care’ that United can not deliver on. Recent international travel with United taught me why they are rated one of the worse airlines in the world. This story simply confirms what I already know about United – they make it up as they go along. When you experience customer care the United way it really makes you think twice about your need to travel at all. Cheers, Richard.

  28. Nice of this crew. The last time my United connection through Houston was late, all I got from the United crew was a reprimand for booking a 40 minute connection (like I had a choice). To add insult to injury, even tho the connecting flight was late too, United gave away my seat and those of about 15 others on that flight, even tho they knew we could make it with matching delays.

  29. Way to go UNITED!!! And God, please forgive those senseless people who have posted those comments criticizing the United Airline crew move, Let’s hope they’ll never have to endure a dying mother-father situation, EVER….

  30. I’ve been on planes many times that were delayed because a crew member didn’t show up, there was a mechanical problem and the airline had to find a different plane, the plane arriving from another city was late, bad weather, and this week, no bottled water on the plane. This is the state of airline travel today. Waiting so someone could see his dying mum to say goodbye is just as valid as the rest.

  31. It is good to read about a big corporation showing a caring side. The plane was not held up for long, so they should have still landed in time at no inconvenience to the other passengers.

  32. It’s all in the people. I missed a flight from hong kong with united because security took too long and had to pay $800 to get another. The next day the flight was delayed for 2 hours so another passenger could join us who later joked that he knew a flight attendant and had over slept.

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