Yes, Some Airlines Still Offer a Little Humanity

PHOTO: An airline steward brings coffee to a passenger.Getty Images
An airline steward brings coffee to a passenger.

JetBlue likes to talk about its "humanity" and they walked the walk this week after the horror of the Boston Marathon bombings with small personal touches like waiving bag fees at Logan and providing free coffee and donuts throughout the terminal. The CEO even showed up to remind the troops in Boston - and the rest of the city - that the company was thinking of them.

It's not the only airline that acts human now and again, yes, even in this era of automated kiosks, do-it-yourself ticketing, smartphone this and online that, not to mention life-size avatars or Alaska's robotic 'Ask Jenn' and her equally cheery United twin, 'Ask Alex'.

Here are a few stories about real live people who work for airlines and the lengths they sometimes go to, up to and including dumpster diving (I'll explain). Maybe you'll still hate your airline after sitting on the tarmac for an hour or so, but maybe a couple of teddy bear stories will remind you the human touch has not disappeared entirely.

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Yes, I said teddy bears. The first incident involves a pilot who blogs as JetHead, a self-described veteran American Airlines captain. Last month, he saw a little girl crying at the boarding gate in Dulles. Long story short, the child left her backpack at security (with teddy bear inside) and the pilot risked a late departure to go back and get it. "We don't just fly jets," he wrote, "we fly people. And the occasional teddy bear." The plane departed on time.

The second incident involves a non-recovered bear despite the heroic efforts of JetBlue employees, so they did the next best thing: they sent the lost bear's owner a new one which at four-and-a-half-feet tall, was bigger than the child. The delighted youngster promptly dubbed him "Fatty."

But suppose you don't care about stuffed animals. What humanity do the airlines offer you?

Fly Delta on an international route and you may find out. They have dedicated teams of employees who specifically keep an eye out for delayed flights so they can physically shepherd travelers with tight connections to customs and/or immigration, getting them into shorter lines via bright orange 'Quick Connect' cards. It can be a lifesaver.

American has a similar program with its Oneworld alliance partners, and you'll recognize these folks by their purple vests. I saw these Global Support Center employees in action myself and was impressed at how they help fast-track delayed passengers thanks to real live humans bearing 'Express Connection' cards (also orange, in case you're wondering). "What really resonates with our customers," an American spokesman told me, "is being met proactively by a human being." There it is again, the human touch. Big or small, it makes a difference.

A couple aboard a Virgin America flight were planning to renew their vows in Vegas, but once the cabin crew heard about this, they figured, why wait? The human touch played out in a spontaneous mid-air ceremony complete with free drinks for all. Something similar happened during a long wait at the gate in San Francisco (blame the famous fog). The Virgin in-flight crew swung into action, hauling out the drink cart to serve pre-flight cocktails. I suspect that was one delay few complained about.

But my favorite 'human touch' story has to do with the dumpster diving I mentioned earlier.

As reported by a North Dakota TV station, Brian Holzer died in a freak accident a couple of years ago while putting up Christmas lights. Ever since, his 7-year-old son Cole has clung to the shirt his dad was wearing, a now well-worn but much loved reminder of the man he misses so much. Cole takes it everywhere, including a recent family trip to San Diego on Delta.

Somehow, the shirt got lost. The boy was inconsolable. A family friend called Delta asking, could they help? They could. Delta spokesman Michael Thomas told me they had pilots looking, they put out word on Facebook, gate agents dug through trash, ground crews went diving in dumpsters - and that's where the shirt was found. The priceless artifact was returned to its owner. "A touching, heartwarming story that really speaks volumes about our employees," said Thomas.

Technology can do a lot - but it'll never be a substitute for a little humanity. The opinions expressed by Rick Seaney are his alone and not those of ABC News.