I realized recently that one of the differences between United Airlines and Southwest Airlines comes down to a Maya Angelou quote, about how people don't remember what you say or do, but they do remember how you make them feel.
This story is about a United Airlines flight attendant who seems to understand that.
It all takes place on Mother's Day, which was the day that Rachel Braverman and her family returned to their home in New Jersey after a Florida vacation. She and her husband had taken their three oldest kids to Disney World.
Hours after she got off the plane in Newark, she realized she'd left the breast milk she'd worked so hard to pump for her four-month-old son on the plane.
"I started crying," she told me in a phone interview. "You don't know me, but I don't cry easily--or ever. But I'm exhausted and it's so much work, and it's like 100 ounces of milk. But our parents are here, and it's Mother's Day, so I let it go and move on."
'This is Jeff...'
She tried to file a lost and found claim with United, but got frustrated staring at the online forms and figuring it wouldn't likely amount to anything anyway. But then, that night, her husband got a text message.
"This is Jeff. I'm a flight attendant on United. I think I found something on the plane that belongs to you," Braverman recalled it saying.
Jeff Nowotny told me in a separate call that he's been a flight attendant for more than 17 years, starting with Continental Airlines and continuing with United when the airlines merged in 2010.
He's flown all over the world, and loves his job, although these days he largely goes back and forth between his home in New Jersey and destinations in Florida. On Sunday, he was doing exactly that, heading to Miami on the exact same plane that Braverman and her family had just flown in on.
"A passenger noticed [the breast milk under a seat back] during taxiing," in Newark, Nowotny said, "and I opened the bag to see what it was. I contacted the captain to see if we could go back and drop it off. When that was impossible, I figured when I land in Miami I'll have the agents pull the passenger's reservation" and get her contact information.
'I can just drop it by if you like'
Braverman called Nowotny; she reached him after he'd landed in Miami and the plane was getting ready to fly back to Newark.
He told Braverman that he imagined she might be upset over having forgotten the breast milk. So, he'd kept it on ice throughout the flight down to Florida, and expected to keep it cold again on his next flight back to Newark. He suggested that she might want to just meet him back at the airport when he landed at 11:30 p.m.
With young kids at home, however, Braverman thanked him for the offer but said she couldn't make the drive that late. So, Nowotny asked what town she lived in.
"'I can just drop it by if you like,'" he remembered telling her. "I didn't want to scare her; I'm a stranger coming by at midnight, so I'd suggested if you want to meet me at the airport. But I was like yeah, of course. I'm just happy to help. I know how important it can be."
Braverman recounted her side of the call: "I'm like, 'Who are you?' It's still surreal to me that there are people in this world that exist, that just want to do the right thing. He was just a good guy, said it's not a big deal. He just wanted to do the right thing."
'I care about the passengers. It makes me happy.'
Braverman and Nowotny never actually met: by the time his flight landed andhe drove out to her home perhaps 25 minutes from the airport, it was well after 12:30 a.m.
The Bravermans were asleep, and he'd told her he planned simply to leave the breast milk packed in ice at their doorstep. She left him a small gift to say thanks.
And that was it: a small gesture in Nowotny's eyes that made practically bowled Braverman over with gratitude and appreciation.
She tried the next day to figure out how to submit some kind of official thank you to United for Nowotny's actions, but said once again she had a hard time navigating the airline's site.
So, her husband, who owns a company that has a contract with United, sent a note to the people he works with there. Meantime, Braverman posted a short version of the story on Facebook, where a number of her friends saw it. One of them happens to work for Today.com, and she wrote a story about it.
That sort of opened the floodgates of attention, Nowotny said.
"United has had a lot of bad press, and it's difficult sometimes. It's just so nice to have someone who appreciates really, the smallest thing," he said. "I just have a big heart and I always like to help people, and I care about the passengers. It makes me happy."