As all fliers know, the employees of most airlines are a vortex of three hatreds:
Hatred of customers (for always being "right" while simultaneously being such Mr. and Mrs. Magoos) … hatred of their fellow employees (for being surly, uncooperative union goons just like they are) … and hatred of themselves (for being stuck in this once-glorious, now grim industry).
And the consequences of this perfect lather of loathing? Just the latest example came during Super Bowl Sunday, when United Airlines dispatchers refused to update pilots on the score of the game, so passengers had to fly in senseless ignorance.
The very same weekend I happened to be flying Southwest Airlines to and from New Orleans, and I witnessed the following small miracle:
A Southwest customer-service agent was at working the desk at a gate, and she was not having a very good day. (Not all Southwest employees are sniffing glue throughout their shift.)
She was being curt with customers, and when they left after asking their dumb questions, she rolled her eyes.
I stood nearby reading a book, as a couple of Southwest pilots walked up. One of them observed that it looked like she was "stuck" there behind that desk. Without a smile, she allowed that she was. He asked her if he might get her something to drink. Again unsmilingly, she said that might be OK.
"What'll you have?" he asked.
"Where are you going?" she asked, not wanting to put him out because putting him out would require expressing gratitude.
"Where do you want me to go?" he insisted, at which point she said she wouldn't mind having an iced tea, sweet with lemon, from the McDonald's, a little ways up the concourse.
"You got it," he said, and walked off to get the tea.
And she smiled, just a little.
And I smiled, a lot.
That's always been the thing about Southwest that impressed me more than the bouncy, jouncy, Kool-Aid drinking would-be comics in the workforce. It's the real, honest, regular Southwest people who are working a repetitive, high-stress job, and doing so with humanity, with emotional intelligence and, albeit sometimes grudging, a sense of humor.
The idea of a Southwest employee refusing to tell a pilot the score of a football game is preposterous. It's just about exactly as preposterous as a United pilot coaxing a sour gate agent into letting him buy her a sweet iced tea.
This is such a perfect case study of “leading by example.” I bet the kindness of those pilots taught the surly agent in a way no amount of lecturing could.
Of course, we all know I’m completely biased when it comes to Southwest.