A good friend and old business school classmate had flown into San Francisco from Israel for meetings. We hadn’t seen each other in 5 years and he had never been to Vegas, so the idea of taking a quick jaunt to Vegas formed. The trip itself was great but trouble struck when we were coming back. We had booked the return flight back to San Francisco on Saturday for super early on Southwest, since he was flying back to Tel Aviv from SFO at 11am (on a different airline). The first connecting leg to Tel Aviv was domestic so the 2-hour window should – in normal circumstances – be sufficient. We reasoned that the earliest flight shouldn’t, in theory, have any delays due to backlog, and also the connecting leg was out of the same terminal as our arriving flight.
What we didn’t account for was the fog in the mornings in San Francisco. We woke up at the airport – we had gotten there dramatically early to make sure nothing went wrong, and we were exhausted and short on sleep – to hear that our flight was delayed. By an hour. Not a big deal normally and it would have been worrisome but not a game-changer in this case, except that Gur had checked in 3 large pieces of luggage with household items and things you can only get in the US for his wife and 3 young children. He would have to disembark the plane, leave the terminal, wait for his baggage, take it to the other airline’s counter, wait in line to check his bags, make it through security, and get to the gate – all in an hour. There were few alternative options to get to the connecting city so it was likely he was going to miss his international flight.
What happened next is what I find incredible. The Southwest team of lead flight attendant, captain of the airplane, and ground crew supervisor came together to brainstorm solutions for us. Together they decided to pull the 3 pieces of luggage off the plane and store them in the passenger cabin so Gur could take them directly off the plane. The captain himself went with Gur down into the belly of the aircraft to get the luggage from the hold. The rarity of this situation was highlighted when the captain initially directed the jet bridge to the wrong part of the plane, apologizing, “Sorry, I don’t come down here very much.” He then walked Gur all the way out to security to fast-track the process of clearing security again with the previously checked luggage. One of the bags was too wide to roll in the aisle of the plane so the flight attendant pushed it cross-ways all the way to the back of the plane. They let us pre-board so we could make sure we had luggage space and so we could sit near the front of the plane. In the air, the flight attendant and captain – from the cockpit – researched gate numbers and logistics for when we arrived, keeping us informed throughout the flight. When we landed, Gur made a break for the gate while I stayed to get the large bag that had been stored in the back. The flight attendant helped me carry it cross-ways all the way to the front of the plane and then the captain took the bag and walked with me all the way to the departure gate, where he helped us navigate the conversation with the other airline’s gate agent.
Throughout this entire process, Gur and I kept looking at each other with disbelief. In his words, “I am in awe.” We are not sentimental people but our hearts were in our throats. When you travel often, it’s easy to take a clinical and sometimes cynical view of the airlines. You tend to accept the constraints they impose – show up an hour before your flight, bring a maximum of 2 carry-ons, make sure your luggage doesn’t exceed weight restrictions, and follow the established process – as the business bargain to get from your point A to point B. They might serve you drinks on the plane as part of this bargain but there’s no real “relationship” – if the airline goes bankrupt, your first thought is “So what happens to my miles?”
It’s shocking when an airline – or in truth, the employees of an airline – treats you in a deeply humane fashion. The kindness, the interest in us as individuals, and empathy for our situation – it felt like the hospitality of a family. It reminds me that while the term “hospitality” has been hijacked to refer to a large commercial industry, it originally meant the relationship between a guest and a host. There are still places in the world where being a guest holds special meaning, as sacred or under special protection.
It would have been easy for Southwest Airlines' employees to shrug at our problems, and say - as other airlines do - "Weather delays, can't be helped. That's not our problem." But they didn't. Instead, they felt a call to action. Southwest is not a small company, and that there is a culture and space inside that prioritizes hospitality over rules – this was a concerted team effort, not a one-off happenstance – stretches my idea of what is possible. Our understanding of things is grounded in the metaphors we use, and too long has the machine been the metaphor for the large corporation. It’s gotten to the point where we automatically think of corporations as cold and calculating – as inherently and unchangeably so. But as someone once told me, “There is what is, but there is also what could be.”