I was sitting in a gate area at the Atlanta airport, waiting to board flight Delta flight 2074 to Norfolk, Virginia, when a gate agent announced, "We're sorry, but boarding will be delayed while the mechanics take care of a maintenance issue."
A number of people groaned.
A few minutes later, the gate agent announced that the flight would be further delayed. Groans. Grumbling.
Then the captain walked up to the desk and got on the loudspeaker. He said:
I'm sorry, but due to a maintenance issue we've decided to switch to another plane. While it's not a big issue, our biggest priority is your safety, and we've decided to take that plane out of service until it's 100 percent ready to go. I've been on the phone working to get another plane and they assure me it won't take long. Hopefully we can get everything worked out within 30 minutes. I really appreciate your patience and promise that we will keep you updated.
No one groaned. No one grumbled.
Ten minutes later, the gate agent announced that the flight would board a couple of gates away. I moved to that area and sat.
Moments later, the pilot sat down across from me.
I had been thinking about how no one seemed frustrated or upset when he announced the switch to another plane. I'm usually pretty shy but felt compelled to say something.
"Making that announcement yourself was a nice touch," I said. "Usually a gate agent does it, which makes sense...but we all know they're just passing on information. For you to come out and explain why you made the decision, what you're doing to take care of it...that feels a lot better. It's hard to complain when the person in charge explains why they made the call. And if anyone had questions, you were there to answer them. It would be great if more pilots did that."
"Thanks," he said. "I appreciate you saying that. But I didn't do it for that reason. I just thought, 'OK, I know exactly what's going on,' and explaining it myself seemed more efficient than passing it on through the gate agent."
We talked for a few minutes while we waited for the new plane to get to the gate. I asked where he lives, about his schedule, and about the life of a pilot. He asked where I live. When I told him Virginia Beach, Virginia, he asked where because he was curious about the military hovercraft that are often in the bay near the Little Creek base.
Nice chat. Nice guy.
When the plane was ready, the gate agents did a great job speeding the boarding process, and midway through the flight, the pilot announced we would land in Norfolk around 12:15 p.m., only about 30 minutes later than our original arrival time. When we were about 10 minutes out, he came back on the loudspeaker to explain that we would actually land closer to 12:25 because air traffic control had directed him to land from the north.
"We'll fly out over the water," he said, "and take a couple of left turns to come in from the other direction." He paused, and said, "So Jeff, if you look out the window as we approach, you should be able to see your house."
The lady sitting beside me said, "What is he talking about?"
I smiled. "I think he's talking to me," I said.
I looked, but never saw the coastline because we didn't fly over the ocean. Oh well.
As I was exiting the plane he looked back. I smiled and raised my hands as if to say, "What happened?"
"I'm sorry," he said. "At the last minute, they changed their minds and told us to come straight in. I was a little busy," he laughed, "so I didn't update you."
We shook hands and I headed home.
But throughout the day I kept thinking about the trip. I was impressed by how the pilot announced the delay himself. I appreciated that he sat in the boarding area and chatted instead of sitting separately with the rest of the flight crew. Telling me, by name, to look out the window to see my house was pretty cool. I told a few other people about it and they thought it was pretty cool, too.
Unfortunately, though, I couldn't remember his name. (It's embarrassing how bad I am at remembering names.)
So I called Delta. I spoke with a media rep, explained what happened and I wanted to write about it because it was a nice story, and how I was only asking for the pilot's name so I could give credit where credit is due.
She promised to get back with me right away.
That was two weeks ago.
Of course it's possible that she never got back to me for security reasons. Then again, pilots introduce themselves when they welcome passengers aboard. They also typically introduce the flight crew. Confidentiality shouldn't be an issue.
Or maybe Delta's media relations people are too busy fighting PR fires. But can you really be too busy to take a few minutes that ensure an employee will receive a little well-deserved praise?
Or maybe the pilot was asked and said he didn't want to be identified. That's cool. Just say so. (After all, you did say you'd get back to me...so why not close the loop?)
Or maybe it's just that Delta doesn't want to single out one person for a job well done. I hope that's not the case.
No one receives enough praise. No company, and definitely no individual.
What the pilot did--making the delay announcement himself, chatting with me in the boarding area, and having a little fun during his landing announcement--weren't big things, but they were nice things. He turned flying, which often feels like an impersonal--and, at times, even slightly adversarial--transaction between customer and company into something a lot more personal.
With a quick return call, Delta could have ensured that one of their pilots received a small bit of public praise.
When I got home that day, did I think better of Delta as a company? Oh, absolutely.
Do I still? Yes...but not as much.