Would you care to hold that plane?

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By Christopher Elliott

Holding a plane for a passenger is an iconic customer service gesture.

In a different era of commercial aviation, before the importance of on-time arrivals led to aircraft doors closing 15 minutes before departure, airlines almost routinely kept planes at the gate for passengers trying to make a connection or those who were simply running late.

Which made the story of Kerry Drake, a grief-stricken United Airlines passenger who was trying to catch a flight from San Francisco to Lubbock, Tex., so that he could say goodbye to his dying mother, so remarkable — and heartwarming.

United’s customer service dilemma

A kind flight attendant named Sofia supplied Drake with a seemingly endless supply of napkins to dry his tears during the flight. When it looked as though he might miss his connection in Houston, the pilot of that flight took action to arrange for the aircraft to hold long enough for him to sprint to his gate.

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

When I reported this story recently on my consumer advocacy site, I expected readers to say, “Finally!” At last, an airline like United is doing something good for its customers instead of adding another fee or throwing the rule book in their faces. Instead, it triggered an interesting debate about the current state of air travel that suggests that keeping a plane at the gate for one passenger may not necessarily be the best way to gauge an airline’s commitment to customer service.

Some passengers loved the “hold the plane” tale, of course.

The ripple effect of kindness

“Finally, a story about airlines and staff that have heart,” said Brenda Rivera, a fitness instructor from Round Rock, Tex. “I know it’s a hard business to be in and I know so many negative things are said, but it’s nice to know that this story shows that there are people behind the big-name airlines who care. Way to go, United.”

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But that’s not all that people had to say. Though many appreciated the airline’s efforts to help a passenger in need, they pointed out that the delay affected hundreds of other passengers on the flight from Houston to Lubbock. What about them?

Another traveler noted, ‘An action like this has a ripple effect, and it’s undeniable that it adversely affected many people, not only the passengers on the plane. Perhaps it even impacted someone else with a similar circumstance who didn’t openly express their emotions and, as a result, wasn’t attended to.’

Empowering gate agents

To get an idea of how rare a “hold the plane” story is, consider what happened to a client of San Francisco-based travel agent Janice Hough who recently tried to catch a last-minute overnight flight on United. Because the client was a Global Services-level member of United’s MileagePlus frequent-flier program, the airline had every reason to hold the aircraft for him. In fact, one of the unspoken benefits of this elite level is that the airline will hold a plane for you under certain conditions.

“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 reached the gate, he found the door closed, and despite empty seats, the agent there informed him that he couldn’t board, even though the plane didn’t depart for another 15 minutes.”

I inquired with United about its policy of holding aircraft, and a representative stated that they recently revised it to permit gate agents to selectively enable passengers to board even after officially closing the doors. To be clear, the pressure for an on-time departure still exists, but agents will now have the “empowerment” to bend a rule when appropriate.

The extraordinary gesture

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 bid 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.

On-time departures versus compassion

“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. (Related: United Airlines holds plane so passenger can say goodbye to his dying mother.)

Personally, I’d love to report a few more planes-being-held stories. (Here’s what you should do if your flight has been delayed or canceled.)

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.

Should airlines hold their planes for passengers?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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