The Cracks

The Coolest United Pilot…EVER…


Plane taking off against a sunset.

The best picture I’ve ever taken was in Missouri. Who knew?

I’ve traveled just over 2 million miles in my lifetime.  Most of those miles came on United Airlines, although I’ve had a healthy number of flights on most major carriers.  From 34 countries, 49 of 50 states, and countless cities (I’m excited to try and put them all on the new wall map my wife got me for my birthday), I’ve seen a lot.

I’ve also noticed that no matter what the airline, they are an easy target.  I rarely complain at the service, a late flight, etc.  I know it can be a pain, but I typically see late flights as the choice to not fly because of something…weather, mechanical issues, etc.  And I’d rather be alive and late than, well, you know…

But the complaining is universal.  In EVERY line I’ve stood in to get on a plane, somebody is complaining.  “THIS is why I never fly X or Y…” is usually how they start.  “The customer service has really deteriorated from 3 decades ago when I started flying regularly.”  And on and on.

Whenever I hear the ranting begin, not only do I look for my earbuds, but I almost always start thinking about Baz Luhrmann’s song, “Always Wear Sunscreen” (which is actually a reading of a famous essay from columnist Mary Schmich, 1997).  My favorite line from that song, especially as I age is this one: “Accept certain inalienable truths: Prices will rise. Politicians will philander. You, too, will get old. And when you do, you’ll fantasize that when you were young, prices were reasonable, politicians were noble and children respected their elders.”  How appropriate.

The ultimate airport for the elderly.

The ultimate airport for the elderly.

So, with that historical perspective, and as a person who is generally pleased with the treatment and professionalism of most airline employees (like any group, there are always a few who should find other work), I have to stop and tell you about the single, coolest thing I’ve ever seen an airline employee do.  It aligns amazingly well with United’s Hedgehog concept, to keep with my Saint Leo filter of “Good to Great” by Jim Collins.  At the heart of United’s mission is customer service, not just moving people from place to place.  So I hope they see this and give this First Officer, whose name I never caught, some recognition.


It was March 7, 2015 – the day after my birthday.  I was coming home from a quick, overnight trip.  (I was actually a little surprised that none of the airline computers told their human counterparts to comment on my big day – United might consider that as a trigger in their technology as it would be a nice touch.)  My flight (UA 298) from Newark (EWR) to Tampa (TPA) was going to be late.  The plane coming in from Nassau was an hour late, so we were going to be pushed back.

So, once we finally got on the plane, people were edgy.  I was grateful to have been bumped up to First Class, and it didn’t appear we’d end up more than 30 minutes late, so I wasn’t feeling too bad.  (10:45 vs 11:15 isn’t really a big deal for me – either way my wife and daughter would be asleep when I arrived….)

So, it was really unfortunate when an Asian passenger, obviously on a trip to the states, came up to the First Class cabin and stated in broken English to the attendants that she had forgotten her iPad at Security.  I’ve been there!  That stinks!

And, I’m sure like most people that heard the news, I thought what they did.  “Too bad.  I hope TSA has a decent process to get that back, but they likely don’t.  What a shame.”  Etc.  The attendant turned to tell the Captain, just as the door was shutting.  The weary traveler was told they would radio Security and see if TSA could hold it or mail it, etc.  They would try to do what they could.

A few minutes past and soon the First Officer came out.  I didn’t catch her name, but she was younger…ok, she looked younger than me, but every year that happens more and more…  She told the attendants that TSA had the iPad, but that someone would need to go get it.  The attendants replied they couldn’t make it as the door was closed already and the gate was near the very end of the concourse.  The First Officer looked at them quizzically and said, “Oh no!  I didn’t mean you.  I’ll get it.  Please open the door.”

There was a VERY pregnant pause in the cabin.  Everyone, even the passengers looked around.  Really?  She was going to go get it?

Newark's TSA Lost & Found computer shelf.

Newark’s TSA Lost & Found computer shelf.

She announced, “They’re still loading baggage.  That will likely take 10 more minutes, so I should be ok.”  And so, they opened the door, and she sprinted – yes, sprinted – back up the ramp.

Some chuckled.  The attendants jokingly talked about her youthful energy.  A few First Class passengers grumbled at the thought of being even later into Tampa.  (Come on people!  Empathy!)  And we waited.

I saw people put down their cell phones and iPads and magazines and books….everyone wondered if she’d really be back quickly.  Nine minutes later we had our answer.  There she was, iPad in hand, desperately short of breath.  “At least I don’t have to do the treadmill at the hotel tonight!” she said.

She handed the device to the attendants who said, “No way!  You go give it to her.  You should get the credit!”  The Officer took the iPad back to the woman who was likely smiling and breathing easier.  As she walked back to the front, the attendants noticed no real talking had taken place – likely due to a language barrier.  “Did she realize you were the PILOT?” queried one attendant.  The Officer shrugged.  “Well, I’m going back there to make sure she knows you are not a Flight Attendant,” to which the Officer quickly replied, “Whatever.  One team, same team.”  And with that, she opened the cockpit door, and disappeared from my view.

We ended up waiting another 5 minutes for baggage to be loaded.  We weren’t a single minute later than we would have been.  But the whole flight took on a different vibe.  I think everyone in First Class smiled.  The Flight Attendants did the same.  I’m sure the traveler smiled every time she looked at her iPad.  I hope that First Officer realizes what she did.

Because I have to tell you, it was the single, coolest thing I’ve ever seen any airline employee do.  Ever.

Good luck and good flying.

Dr. Jeff D Borden
Chief Innovation Officer

About Jeff Borden

My title at work is ‘Chief Innovation Officer.’ So I'm trying to transform teaching and learning at scale. How do I do that? Through my "life" jobs. Primarily, I'm a dad and husband. But I'm also a professor, writer, professional speaker, comedian, researcher, lifelong learner, musician, dog-owner, and even a ranked disc golfer... I've spoken to, trained, or consulted with hundreds of thousands of educators at all levels, in numerous countries, K-20, about how to teach and learn effectively in the 21st Century.

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