Airline Pilot Confidential: The Teddy Bear Incident.


flashIt’s the middle day of three back-to-back turns–pace yourself.

In fact, it’s the second leg of the middle turn, Dulles International, 7pm–time to get out of town: the elephant walk of international widebody jets commences shortly.  If we can push back even five minutes early, we can beat the line–and the wake turbulence delay.

prflt docsUse the captain’s invisibility cloak: the ability to do most pre-flight planning on the smart phone. Check the weather, the route, the fuel load. Add more fuel. Sign the release with a touch of the screen, then send a hard copy to a gate printer, all from the cockpit. Wait for it to finish printing then slip into the terminal discretely, invisibly, to pick up the paperwork, avoiding the gate chaos directly. Don’t make eye contact, don’t invite hassles, complaints, requests, anything that delays the door slam and brake release to get ahead of the fat boys headed for the runway. Still have to fly to DFW, drive home–then back out to do the turn again tomorrow. Minutes from pushback, be invisible now.

But wait. Out of the corner of your eye, you see it: a teenage girl, on her phone, tense; next to her, what could only be her younger sister in tears. No parents, no adults, just the agent telling them both, “You either board now, or you’ll have to fly tomorrow.” That sends the little one into big sobs.

timer 3Less than fifteen minutes till push. Can you maybe say you didn’t see any of this? But you did.

“What do you need?” you ask the older, maybe sixteen-year-old sister.

She puts the cell phone down for a second, plaintive. “She left her backpack at security.”

Sigh. The agent is looking at you pointedly, his eyes saying we need to board now and shut the aircraft door. But from the tears in the young girl’s eyes, you pretty much guess what’s in the backpack. I consider taking the youngster back through security–but then think better of it.

IAD 3

We’d have to run to the center of the terminal, down two escalators, onto the train to the main terminal, up two more escalators, then find the security checkpoint that might still have the backpack–then retrace our steps, before departure time in fifteen minutes. Not going to happen.

I catch the older sister’s eye. “You have some ID?” She nods. “Let’s go.” I head off at a fast walk toward the mid terminal; “Wait here!” she tells her little sister, and the agent slumps the message damn you captain. Big sister’s on my heels, asking, “Can we do this?” Just shrug; “They’re not leaving without me.”

IAD 1

We tumble down the two-story escalator two steps at a time, shoving past others like obnoxious travelers. I envision people watching, trying to figure out why an airline captain in uniform is running away from a teenager in hot pursuit. I also remember the miles I ran that morning before flight.

IAD 4

Even though the automated voice is warning that the doors are closing–do not delay this train–I do anyway, holding the door as she jumps aboard. “It’s got all her school books,” she says, out of breath. Right: I have a big picture of a fifth grader hauling a load of schoolbooks on spring break.

“No worries,” I say, “It could happen to anyone.” She nods. “Special guys in there?” I ask casually. She smiles sheepishly.

I don’t care: that’s a very real tragedy for a youngster, losing all the stuffed guys that mean the world to them. Not on my watch.

We spill out of the train on the far end, then WAIT: this will take us to baggage claim and out of the secure area–we need the TSA checkpoint! We dash back through the closing exit doors, then push through the boarding passengers and out the other side.

Two sets of identical escalators–both going down. Means we have to rush up the steps–but which ones? “Which security checkpoint did you use?” I ask. She looks confused; they are identical, not sure how one could really know anyway. “Let’s try this one,” I say, rushing the steps.

security-den

We reach the TSA supervisor’s stand. He shakes his head. “No pink backpack here–try the other side.”

Figures. We run the length of the concourse and arrive at the opposite checkpoint. “You’re lucky,” a cheerful TSA agent in a pressed blue shirt says, “we were getting ready to send it to lost and found.”

Identification checked, signatures. She sees me eying her sister’s backpack. “Uh, we need to start putting a nametag on this, don’t we?”

I nod. Lesson learned. It’s confusing, especially kids traveling alone. “I was on the phone with my Mom,” she says, “hoping we could get someone to drive out here and pick up the backpack.”

“No worries,” I say, in my mind’s eye picturing the waves of 747s and A-340s pushing back, lining up for takeoff.  “Anyone can lose stuff at the airport, especially at security.”

We retrace our steps as fast as we can, me feeling the morning miles, my friend feeling and looking relieved. At the gate, she hands the backpack to little sister who still looks mortified.

They rush down the jetbridge to board. I walk, telling the agent “Just charge me with the delay.” He gives me a glare that says I was going to anyway, which I answer with a smile that says I don’t care.

IMG_2870

The elephants already started the parade and we squeezed into the conga line. Sure, I’d have some explaining to do a thousand miles or so west. But no one missed their connection in DFW, no one was unduly delayed; and most importantly, no one’s little world collapsed with the loss of everyone they loved. That, to me, matters a lot.

Because we don’t just fly jets–we fly people. That, and the occasional special bear.

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57 Responses to “Airline Pilot Confidential: The Teddy Bear Incident.”

  1. Capt.,

    For the longest time I flew United pretty much anywhere. However, since reading your blog I’ve slowly started flying AA. After this post, I’d say the change is complete. You are easily the best advocate for your company I’ve encountered. I hope to be in one of your jets in the future.

    All the best!

  2. [...] passenger, wake turbulence, widebody jets. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own [...]

  3. Jerry Sterner Says:

    Way to go Captain, good to see a little personal touch from somebody in a relatively impersonal industry. That being said, although I fly only 2-3 times a year I have never had a bad experience with any crewmember of the several airlines I fly. Maybe being polite helps.

  4. Guess Who Says:

    “we don’t just fly jets–we fly people”

    Couldn’t stop reading it. Stunning.

  5. AA Retired Says:

    “I don’t care,” in response to the agent, if you’ve been there, really means, I care a lot. That’s why you do what you do, and I did what I did.

    • That’s right on the money. And you know that immediately afterward, you go into the cockpit, put the whole thing completely out of your mind and get back to work. Distractions are a liability–concentration on the flight is key.

  6. You are so kind. You made that little girl’s day. Thank you for sharing this story.

  7. Chris, that’s the way to do it, well done! And as you wrote: “the plane won’t leave without you” and it is just a matter of having the guts to stick out your neck. I would have done the same…

    • I know you would, Martin. You know that being a captain is more than just accomplishing a series of tasks–it’s all about doing the right thing, no matter how worn out you are and how much more it adds to the work day. Plus, what the heck: you only get one childhood, if you can make that better for someone, you just have to.

  8. paulmlally Says:

    You deserve five stripes on your sleeve for this selfless, courageous demonstration of an adult caring for a child’s heart more than the woes of the conga line.

  9. Federico Bossi Says:

    Well done, captain!
    This what airlines, and any other enterprise for that matter, should be made of: humanity.

    As you said, you don’t fly jets, you fly people, and thats easily forgotten, while these girls won’t forget your compassionate act.

    Again, well done!

    • I think it’s simply a case of doing the right thing even if it’s not necessarily the prescribed thing to do for the job. My boss, the Chief Pilot, backed me 100% afterward.

      • The fact that your Chief Pilot backed you, says a lot! The best work places are the ones that keep the first thing, first….From the top down. Hopefully the desk agent, will be impacted by this act of kindness.
        It’s great to hear the “good news”.

  10. You give me hope that humanity is not lost in our quest for efficiency. Well done!

  11. Chalk up one big point for humanity! Well done, Chris.

  12. You are “The Man”. Well done.

  13. I have got to stop reading your blog while having the sun in my eyes .. Honest those weren’t tears.

  14. It was a taxi driver in Manhattan who saved my big girl’s best bear. To him, and to you: thank you.

  15. Not just what the airline industry needs more of….it’s what all of humanity needs more of…(secretly hoping I would make the same decision every time)

  16. My wife and I love our bears and would be heartbroken if one missed a flight. Thank you for understanding the importance of a stuffed companion.

  17. eshus123 Says:

    Nice to have a real person behind the voice stating “this is your captain speaking”. In a world where you can go a whole day without face-to-face communication, this was truly a reminder that deriving from the expected is what makes life.

  18. Always do what is RIGHT, regardless of consequences–a great way to live your life….

  19. Oh, that was such a lovely thing to do. I am gonna have to reblog this.

  20. Reblogged this on Sex, Spirit, Soul Mates and Chocolate….Ivonne's Journey and commented:
    This is such a sweet story from an AA Airline Pilot whose blog I follow.

  21. What a wonderful human being you are – this was superb and thank you.

  22. Peter G. Says:

    Hey Cap’n, if you decide to retire a little early, there’s a really important job about 2SM north of DCA opening up in 2016 that needs a real Captain and PIC to show up before the current student enters an unrecoverable full stall (student with no training in make/model currently way behind the situation and ignoring the stick shaker). And I understand one perk is your own fleet of B747, 757s, 737s and a few C-37s ;) Well done, sir; you Rock. Blue Skies.

  23. Fred Schiller Says:

    Applause, applause, applause.

  24. Alicia Stokes Says:

    I’m a former AA employee. So many rules, regulations, restrictions governed what we did every day and I work in sales in an office! I know the pressures for on-time departures/arrivals, the time you guys put in and the flight hours are great, not to mention responsibility for the safety of those in your care. It’s people like you that make me proud to say I started my career at AMR!

  25. Beautiful. I have just become a follower of your blog because of this (my first) article.

  26. Steven Schultz Says:

    Thank you for daring to bring compassion and kindness into an airport terminal. I thought such behavior was strictly prohibited by management and the TSA. You, sir, are a radical — and I admire you for it. Travel well!

  27. Ken Korshin Says:

    Way to go Chris!

  28. [...] story about a pilot going the extra mile for one of his [...]

  29. Christian Says:

    I hate American Airlines. Even as a frequent flyer, I still have issues on every flightI. But I sure hope the next AA flight I’m on has you as it’s Captain! :)

  30. [...] first is from Chris Manno, an American Airlines captain who blogs under the name JetHead. In “Airline Pilot Confidential: The Teddy Bear Incident” he describes a decision he made, in violation of corporate incentives/pressures and perhaps [...]

  31. silentnonrev Says:

    just read this after reading about the UA captain who diverted to ORD between DEN & BWI so he could kick off a family who complained about a violent in flight movie from which they had no way to shield their kids, and UA’s predictable meaningless response. From the ridiculous to the sublime…it really does take all sorts. Thank you for being a mensch (btw I work for one of your competitors)

  32. mjones52 Says:

    Would that Doing The Right Thing were more practiced, and that it generally connote Humans First.
    Thank you for the act, the example, and knowing what’s right.

  33. Items get left behind at security all the time. I bet it happens once a day at every single gate in a large airport. Should an airline captain be a hero for sprinting through a crowded airport to fix a problem once…or should there be an organized process to call back to security to retrieve items that have been safely scanned, and not put millions of dollars of equipment and revenue on the line?

    • No, we don’t need another level of bureaucracy and supervision to substitute for the person in charge doing the right thing.

      Not sure when in this situation “millions in equipment” was “on the line” any more than it ever is, but taking care of people comes first regardless.

  34. sharon3601 Says:

    Another new follower of your blog after reading the teddy bear story!

  35. INDtowerATC Says:

    Put “TB” in remarks from now on and I’ll put you in front of every fat-boy I have. – fist bump -

  36. I spend my days hearing stories about how families are treated not-so-nicely by airlines. I was delighted to read and share this story. Thank you!

  37. OldGateGuy Says:

    As a now retired AA gate agent, so glad to see the old attitude has not died. We loved the job, the people and the industry. Any chance we had to help all three made up for all the crap we often ran into. Thanks for making all of us look good.

  38. That’s a great feel good story. Thanks for being a good guy and helping her.

  39. This is the best reason to delay I have ever heard.

  40. That was so kind of you! Love that you remember that the customers are people and not just numbers. Loved reading this.

  41. David Hoffman Says:

    I disagree with the opinions of high praise for the decision to go get the backpack. There were probably a dozen different variables that could have turned this success story into a big mess. A serious fall or a stuck door. The pilot also undermined the authority of the gate agent. There are things in life that happen to little children far worse than losing a stuffed animal doll and a backpack. The time to deal with that was when the two of them got 10 feet past the checkpoint and the older one should have double checked that her little sister had everything she went into the checkpoint with. Another thing is that since the little sister was in the care of the older one, the usual unaccompanied minor safety system was not in place. Separating the two and leaving the younger in the care of the busy gate agent was potentially problematic. And what of the people the two of them bumped or banged into on this mad dash or who just witnessed the mad run. Is their impression of the airline industry made more positive or more negative? None of them knew the reason for the rushing about by the two of them.

    The only positive things I can think of is that the cabin crew and other passengers were saved from the potentially noisy wails and sobs of a child during the flight.

    • Actually, you couldn’t be more wrong, or more out of step with the thousands of other normal, compassionate people who see things much differently.

      Just briefly, I didn’t “undermine” the agent’s authority–they have no authority, but as pilot-in-command, I do. I would–will–exercise that authority in exactly the same way given the circumstances in the future.

      And my airline, from Chief Pilot to CEO backed me 100%.

      Sorry about your childhood, but fortunately, the majority of the families and parents in this country are more compassionate.

    • In Dutch we would call a guy like David Hoffman a vinegar-pisser as he is only looking for feeble things that could go wrong but never will. Is this guy staying in bed all his life? He might experience a stuck door, a fall down the stairs, bumped into by a running Czechen, etc.
      The only positive thing I can think of about his post is that he is the only person that has this funny ideas. With a bit of luck he has no children and the line of thinking will disappear.

    • Dude, don’t ever have kids . . . you won’t like it, and they’ll HATE having you as a parent.

    • Who thinks “David Hoffman” lost a teddy when he was little and now is bitter person who really does not get the point of good deed! Yes there were risks sometimes that what helping others takes. But perhaps you don’t get this, but what the pilot did was humanitarian something you rather tied up so much redtape and it out like helping others is bad thing!!! silly little man

  42. I rarely leave message on boards, but thank you mr Captian, You are amazing person.

  43. Vincent Says:

    Great story captain! I just stumbled upon your blog and am really enjoying it. You went above and beyond.

  44. Perhaps the captain can help with some training for all airline employees. Nix that..all companies need to understand what it means to have employees go the extra mile.

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