Searching for kindness during an airport delay

Last Thursday night I ran into trouble coming home from Philadelphia.  My flight was delayed an hour by weather, which meant I was going to miss my connecting flight to South Carolina.  I waited in line to rebook with the gate agent, resigning myself to the probability that wherever I slept that night, it was unlikely to be at home.

I was eighth in line (how can you not count in times like those) and tried to remain calm about the small-scale fiasco.  The woman behind me was not calm at all, though.  She was on the phone with her mom.  “I can’t stand this fucking city a minute longer,” she said in a thick working class accent.  “I’m going crazy, I think I’m gonna have a panic attack.”  Then she called a man named Dan.  More cursing.  More talk of losing her mind.  “Remember that time you started sweating and passed out,” she said.  “That’s going to be me unless I get out of this filthy fucking city.”

My heart did not go out to her.  As I listened to her I thought: What kind of person swears like that in public?  Doesn’t she see that the rest of us are dealing with this unfortunate but unavoidable snag like normal, well-socialized human beings?  Like me, for example, didn’t she see that I’m not throwing a fit even though I really want to get home to my family tonight?

We advanced slowly in line.  I watched the passengers ahead of me talk with the gate agent.  Some got rebooked on other flights, others received only bad news and took up way too much time making the agent run futile queries.  One guy had the agent check for flights into every little airport within two hours of Savannah.  Meanwhile, I thought about the direct flight to South Carolina that I knew was scheduled to leave from Terminal F in an hour, and I pictured other delayed passengers at other gates snapping up the last remaining seats.  Behind me, the woman called her mom back and continued her rant.  Her distaste for Philadelphia was so vociferous, I felt like I needed to speak up for the city.

Finally, I was next in line.  The passenger at the desk received good news: There was room on a later flight to Chicago.  While the agent printed this lucky passenger’s new boarding passes, I got antsier, anticipating my turn to learn my fate.  But just before I stepped forward, I was hit with a very unexpected feeling.  Suddenly I felt cheap and small to be maintaining my position in line while the woman behind me clearly needed resolution faster than I did.  I paused a moment and then turned to her.  She was off the phone now.

“Do you want to go ahead of me in line,” I asked.  “It sounds like you’re having a harder day than I am.”

She was startled at first and gave a quick reply about how I didn’t need to do that.  But then she saw things differently, put a hand on my shoulder, and said, “Bless you, I will go ahead if you don’t mind.”

She stepped forward and received good news, too.  Pittsburgh, apparently, was where she was so desperate to get to that night, and she walked away from the desk a changed woman.  With a boarding pass in her hand and a new lightness in her voice, she paused to thank me again, and  hurried off down the terminal to her new gate.

Later, on my flight home (things worked out for me, too), I thought about what had taken place between the two of us in line.  I was struck by how dramatically she had changed, both within herself and in my own eyes, when I’d offered her my spot in line.  Up until that moment she had seemed completely ugly, but when she thanked me, it was with a direct, human warmth I might have guessed she was incapable of.  I was also surprised at how good it felt to have done something kind, and surprised even more by my surprise: How is it that after 33 years of life, so basic a thing as kindness still startles?

And that has been my lasting feeling about the  experience.  I think about all the ways I could have responded to my somewhat crass linemate, and I’m taken aback by the fact that for 20 minutes I held her in contempt, and only at the last second, for reasons I can’t explain, did I even have the thought to do something kind for her.  The whole experience put a point on how judgment is a default setting, and kindness can feel like a fluke, and how weird it is that life would be made that way.


8 thoughts on “Searching for kindness during an airport delay

  1. Someone once said to me, “We judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions.” I’m glad you were kind to that woman. Your story was a good reminder of how important it is to be good to others.

  2. Wow, thanks for sharing that.. Great lesson there for all of us, clearly.

    Now my turn to share – one tip I learned in my past traveling life is that when you’re waiting in line to try and get rerouted, call the airline 800# and speak to an agent there. They should have access to the same booking info, and can often get you reticketed much faster than any gate or service desk agent.

    • Kevin- There were a couple people behind me in line on the phone with the airline (and one guy on the phone with his secretary at work getting her help to rebook) and I was feeling a little nervous/annoyed when I realized they might be getting the jump on me. I guess next time I’ll join them.

  3. A nice gesture, I still find it strange though that people get so upset by people who are not talking to them. Why be so judgemental in the first place? She is allowed to express her opinion.

  4. Yikes! Paint me humbled by a person far greater than myself!
    Your story may just have saved a world full of hurt. What anger and stress do to our body should remind us that when we are anger and stressed … Everyone loses … most importantly our own health. I promise I will try to pass this legacy on. Hopefully, it will catch on to others as well (especially those in the midst of preparing to give the evil eye instead of the kind heart.

  5. The poor woman has an anxiety disorder. It’s a real thing and it it can be pretty nasty and overwhelming. She clearly didn’t want to explode but knew she might at any second and was calling everyone she knew who might understand.

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