At Every Altitude, Attitude Makes the Difference

Posted 05.04.2017

You know how it feels when you have an unexpected visit with a long-lost friend? That happened to me last week and it happened, of all places, on a United Airlines flight from O’Hare to LAX. And, if you’ve read my blog for a few years or more, you may well remember who I’m talking about.

In the hyper-sensitive viral world we live in, it’s all too easy to become super-saturated in one way of looking at a situation. For instance, based on the symbiotic relationship between media coverage and social media conversations, you might think that every commercial airline flight involves a passenger getting dragged out of the plane by security, a flight attendant arguing with a crying mom over her baby stroller or a pilot breaking up a fight between passengers in the jetway. The conclusion you would draw is that commercial air travel always sucks.

As someone who has flown more than 100,000 miles a year for the past four years, I’m here to say that, yeah, sometimes it sucks. And sometimes it’s ok. And, occasionally, it’s amazing.

Three years ago, I shared the story of one of those amazing occasions when Katherine, a United flight attendant, decided to turn my crappy experience into an amazing one by treating me like a first-class passenger even though I was in coach. It started when I boarded the plane and seeing that I was both exhausted and frustrated she asked me if I wanted to hug it out. We hugged it out right there in the middle galley and from that point on it was free drinks, a hot meal and a special ice cream dessert. Truly amazing. That was back in August of 2014 and ever since then I’ve been hoping I’d fly with Katherine again so I could thank her one more time and tell her how much it meant to me that she chose to do what she did on that flight.

Last week, I flew with Katherine again. I thought it was her when she came by to confirm that all of us in the exit row were good with assisting in an emergency. When she came back later with the snack cart, I had to ask, “Is your name Katherine by any chance?” She looked a little startled and said yes. I explained that I thought I’d flown with her before and that she treated me like royalty with drinks, dinner and dessert when she didn’t have to and that it all started with her offer of a hug in the forward galley. Her face lit up, she said I remember you, that she couldn’t believe I remembered that and then leaned in to give me a big hug. Of course, the guys in the row with me were wondering what in the heck was going on by then. No worries; it was hugs for them too and free snacks for the three of us.

Katherine and I agreed that we’d catch up a bit when she and her teammates were done with the service. When it was time, I went to the back galley for a quick visit with her. I had pulled up on my phone the post I wrote about my first flight with her and let her read through it. Then we started talking about what she does and how she does it as a flight attendant on United.

The first thing you need to know is that, while you’d never know it from looking at her or her picture, she’s been flying with United for 26 years. The next thing is she has an amazing memory for experiences she’s had with her customers. She doesn’t necessarily remember all of their names, but she remembers their seats — 7A, 2B, 25C and so on — and their stories. When they share a little bit of themselves with her, she responds in kind. For instance, while we were in the galley talking, she pointed to a bigger guy who was sitting in the middle seat in the very last row right next to the bathroom. Not exactly the best seat on the plane. Katherine told me, “He doesn’t know it yet, but he’s going to get the first class experience today.” I asked her why and she told me that he had mentioned he was an active duty service man who was on his way home for a family funeral. She was moved by his story and impressed that he didn’t complain when he squeezed into his crummy seat.

A lot of people do complain but Katherine maintains her composure. She shared the story of a woman a few months ago who could not stop complaining that they had run out of the penne pasta dinner on her flight. Katherine offered her everything else available and then suggested the best places to get dinner at LAX. Not good enough! Sometimes, you just can’t please them. Or then there was the guy in 7A who just decided he was going to be in a bad mood no matter how nicely he was treated. His attitude changed, however, when Katherine was called to first class to administer CPR for 45 minutes to a passenger in 2B who had a heart attack while traveling with his eight-year-old daughter. Sadly, he didn’t make it. Needless to say, though, it was a perspective shift for everyone on the plane, including 7A.

And that sort of brings it home, doesn’t it? Life is short and so much of its sweetness depends on the attitude we choose to adopt. That’s true whether you’re a passenger or a flight attendant. Katherine was a role model for me three years ago and she still is today. I’m very grateful I got to see her again last week and share some stories, laughs, and a few more hugs.

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