Civility Can Be Found on Some Flights

You saw the disgraceful headlines: "Fight Cancels Flight! " Unfortunately, this stunning display of (alleged) fisticuffs aboard a plane wasn't a brawl between drunken passengers; the combatants were reportedly flight attendants.

I thought I'd never get the bad taste out of that out of my mouth, until I remembered a letter I received in response to my recent column on bereavement fares. Lori Chalupa wanted to tell me about her long-ago but never-to-be-forgotten experience with United Airlines.

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"It was one of those late night phone calls you never want to get, you know?" she began.

Lori's father was dying hundreds of miles from her home, and none of the airlines she called were helpful in getting her on a last minute flight at the lowest possible price. Then she spoke to United. "I broke down and cried!" she said. And what did that airline rep do? He listened.

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He took the trouble to listen and explain how she could get a much-needed cheaper fare, and she made it to her father's bedside in time. Nice story, but maybe you're thinking, "No big deal." Oh, but it was a very big deal to Lori and it won the airline a customer for life. As she put it, "I have United always at the top of my list."

But is it at the top of yours?

A couple of years back, United hired a former Disney executive to boost customer service, but if the carrier morphed into "the happiest place on earth", I didn't notice. But really, what airline is? (By the way, Disney is the parent company of ABC News.)

Lori's story is all about the "human touch" in air travel, and we have to recover that because it benefits both sides, airlines and passengers (and in all fairness, it should work both ways, too -- I'd like to see an end to loutish behavior among passengers). But do the airlines realize this? They sure seem bent on getting rid of all their humans.

Okay, I'm exaggerating, but you do need actual humans to deliver this touch, and with cuts at call-centers, the additions of kiosks at airports and much, much more, who is left?

Fear not: the human touch hasn't completely disappeared. It's just hard to find sometimes. But, what exactly is "the human touch"? It's hard to define, I suppose, but it could be anything that eases your anxieties, puts a smile on your face, or just gives you a bit of a lift after a long slog through airport security and the line to board the plane.

David Holmes knows what that's like; you may remember him as Southwest Airlines' "rapping flight attendant". He began hip-hopping his way through the safety announcements as a way to get his passengers to pay attention; he actually worried about them. Today, Holmes is still rapping (as you can see from this video) but Southwest's Brandy King tells me he's branched out, doing wedding announcements, birthday wishes, whatever.

I think it's fun – and a simple yet effective example of "the human touch" (certainly better than the "inhuman touch" used on director Kevin Smith when he was ousted from his Southwest flight in front of a planeload of people in that infamous "too fat to fly" episode).

I'm sure you can come up with your own examples of good cheer: Maybe you were one of the passengers whose flight was diverted to Syracuse a couple of years back due to bad weather. As the weary Delta passengers trudged into the Upstate New York terminal, expecting to sit around for hours with nothing to do, they were met with a pizza party complete with three dozen pies. "We believe in this, in being all about customer service," the Delta rep told me, and I about fell out of my chair.

True, you occasionally hear about ill-tempered cabin crew members who can be terse or even rude; I know it happens because I've been there. But I've also seen little acts of kindness, and I hope you have too.

Perhaps the finest example of "the human touch" in air travel history had little to do with any airline, and everything to do with the residents of tiny Gander, Newfoundland. The date was September 11, 2001.

The airspace was closed over the U.S., and 39 big planes were diverted to Canada's Gander International, disgorging close to 7,000 passengers -- about two-thirds of the population of the town! And how did the residents respond? By giving everything they could.

They went through their closets and kitchens and brought food and clothes to the terrified and confused passengers. If they had a spare bed, they offered that as well. Literally everyone pitched in, from school kids to air traffic controllers like George King, who reportedly called his wife to say he'd be bringing home some of the refugees to spend the night.

Grateful passengers described the Gandarites (and locals from all the surrounding communities who also pitched in) as "endlessly giving, cheerful and kind." A song called "The Lighthouse" by the Canadian band, "Sons of Maxwell" wasn't written about this particular interlude, but some of the lyrics seem apt:

"And when the winds of change begin to blow

I whisper 'You're my lighthouse

in case you didn't know'"

Perhaps you recall hearing about one of the founders of Sons of Maxwell, Dave Carroll. He was the fellow who got all that attention when he came out with a music video called, "United Breaks Guitars." That was the result of a decided lack of any kind of human touch: Dave's guitar was broken after a United flight, and the airline wouldn't do anything about it.

Until of course, the video came out.

How about a return to the model of yesteryear? You know, when an airline won a customer's heart for life with some kind words and simple problem solving – instead of becoming a continuing source of inspiration to a songwriter with a wicked sense of humor and a busted guitar for a muse.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.