Pilot's Unusual Move: Delays Takeoff for Dying 2-Year-Old's Grandfather

Southwest pilot hailed for allowing passenger to reach his grandson's bedside.

January 13, 2011, 5:18 PM

DENVER, Jan. 13, 2011 — -- A desperate Arizona man faced with a horrible family tragedy is praising a Southwest Airlines pilot today for displaying an act of human kindness some say is rare in the airline industry: he delayed a takeoff so the man could reach the bedside of his dying 2-year old grandson.

Mark Dickinson was in Los Angeles on a business trip last week when he learned that his grandson Caden Rodgers was lying in a Denver hospital, brain dead and about to be taken off life support.

A few days earlier the boy had suffered terrible head injuries, allegedly at the hands of Theodore Madrid, the boyfriend of Dickinson's daughter Ashley Rogers. Madrid, now charged with first degree murder, was watching the boy while Rogers was at work when Caden was injured.

Dickinson arrived at Los Angeles International Airport to find a long, slow-moving security line. He says airport workers weren't buying his story about Caden and refused to let him jump to the front of the line.

"I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm not going to make my flight.' I didn't know when I was going to get the next one. I resigned myself to the fact that it was my fault," said Dickinson.

He called his wife Nancy back home in Palominas, Ariz., for help. She called Southwest Airlines customer service to plead Mark's case and beg them to hold the plane until Mark could get there.

By the time he got through the security checkpoint, his departure time had already passed. He grabbed his belongings and made a mad dash for the gate, convinced he'd never make his connecting flight in Tucson.

"I was running in my socks through the terminal," said Dickinson, an engineer for Northrop Grumman.

When he got to the gate, Dickinson was shocked to find the plane was still there, the door to the jetway still open.

"I looked over by the jetway and there was the pilot," Dickinson said. "He said, 'Are you Mark?' I said, 'Yeah' and he said, "Well, we're holding the flight for you."

Southwest spokesperson Marilee McInnis said the airline has identified the pilot but according to policy is holding off releasing his name to reporters until he gives permission. He is flying today and could not be immediately reached.

Southwest Pilot Delays Flight

Dickinson thanked the pilot as he rushed aboard, asking for one more brief delay so he could use the lavatory.

"He said, 'no problem. They can't leave without me anyway,'" Dickinson said. "I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe they even knew who I was."

A Southwest spokesman said the pilot is a veteran who is also a member of Southwest's "Corporate Culture Committee."

The pilot held the packed flight for 12 minutes at LAX, which ABC News aviation consultant John Nance calls "an eternity."

"In this day and time, when airlines think they're going to get your dollar by claiming they're number one in on-time departures, that was a very brave thing for the pilot to do," said Nance.

Nance said the gesture is especially unusual in an age of more airline fees, diminished service and customer complaints. The difference, Nance says, is that the corporate culture at Southwest allows employees more freedom to make snap decisions without fear of being suspended or fired.

"What Southwest has prided themselves on is encouraging their employees and well as their senior people to go out of their way to help the public and reward them," said Nance. "And that's what it takes."

Dickinson made it to Denver in time to comfort his daughter before Caden was removed from life support. The boy's organs were donated and he was buried Wednesday.

Nancy Dickinson, a travel writer, was so moved by the Southwest pilot's actions that she shared her husband's story with fellow journalist Christopher Elliott, who originally published it on his website.

"Pilots rarely hold the plane, because they have a schedule to keep. This was highly unusual," Elliott said in an e-mail to ABC News.

Dickinson says he never got the pilot's name and couldn't find him after the flight to thank him properly, and now just wants to shake his hand.

"I can't tell him how grateful I am that he did that for me," he said.

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