Breaking the rules on Christmas Eve

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has worked for an airline that, the larger the entity, the more inflexible it becomes and the more layers of management that must sign off on any sign of initiative from front-line personnel. Naturally, this stifles any effort to be creative and eventually word of those who have been burned for attempting such a thing spreads and the workforce becomes automaton-like.

Years ago, in an attempt to break this inflexibility, there was a policy adopted company-wide at my airline called “The Power to Please.” This empowered all employees who found themselves in a position to help out either a customer or fellow employee or improve the travel experience for them, to act unilaterally to do so. This was an unprecedented change of direction and I doubt that anyone thought it more than empty words as any such action would surely be viewed as transgressing upon many “empires” within the corporation.

All too soon, I was presented with an opportunity to put it to the test.

Snowy ramp
Trying to escape the snow on time, with or without all the passengers.

It happened one Christmas Eve, at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, where I was captain of the last 777-300 (sporting its stealthy, powder-blue metallic paint) of the evening departing for Vancouver. Sunset had happened hours before at this latitude and there were light flurries aimlessly wandering across the floodlight beams trying hopelessly to lessen the winter gloom.

Two minutes before departure, the last cabin door closed with the whirring of the electric motors that we can hear in the flight deck. A minute later, the passenger count form was delivered to the flight deck and I looked over the first officer’s hands to see the total count tally there: we were not full. Almost but not quite.

I looked out the front window to see passengers still running towards their gates, bags of Christmas gifts swinging, children struggling to keep up. I knew how long the lines had been at security when we came through an hour ago. Those still at our gate are just shadows at the window, silhouetted from behind by the bright lights inside the terminal but I could tell from their posture and motion that they were either out of breath or in tears, maybe both. In my peripheral vision, I sensed the bridge withdrawing from the aircraft, creating that odd sensation that it is us who are rolling backwards away from the building.

I called Ops, asking why we are being dispatched while we had empty seats and passengers at the gate. The reply was that we must depart on time, that hallowed mark of an efficient transportation entity. Determining that there was no flight waiting for our gate, I negotiated having the bridge put back on, the airplane filled up as well as our two jump seats filled with company employees desperate to get home to their families for the holidays. The price I had to pay was to verbally accept responsibility for the late departure and all the harassment this decision would surely bring down upon my grey-topped head.
While the considerable steps were being coordinated to reverse the departure dance, I advised our customers what was happening and assured them that it would not negatively impact our arrival in Vancouver.

Passengers by gate
So close, and yet so far away…

Our view of the change of spirits at the gate was remarkable – people practically jumping for joy, gathering up their children and gifts, getting in line, their dashed plans suddenly brought back to life. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was surprised that the scene gave me the warm fuzzies.

We did depart full to the gills including the jump seats, I bumped up the cost index enough to ensure an on-time arrival on the West Coast without burning more than a couple of hundred additional kilos and we did our part to please a few extra folks.

And the aftermath that befell me for taking this action?

Nada; never heard a word, not the expected phone calls from the chief pilot or the base manager. Nothing. Quite remarkable in hindsight, considering the daily, system-wide conference calls during which every department head had to explain every single delay that had happened on their watch.

Well, that’s not quite the truth; some very thankful letters from some passengers were received and duly forwarded across several desks to my mail folder.

Corporations are but a piece of signed and stamped paper on file in a registry somewhere. It is the folks who toil within that company who make it work or fail. The tone of the company is set by those with the power to do so. These folks come in both good and bad forms and they both tend to drift from company to company. It is nice to be there when the good ones are at the helm.

Merry Christmas to all. And Peace on Earth too.

9 Comments

  • Kudos to an old school stick and rudder pilot that put the caring back into air travel. RASM/CASM are important markers in this business but so is serving your customers internally and externally.
    Thank you

  • Your last paragraph says it all. A business no matter how large or small is made up of people. The product of any business reflects the people within. Unfortunately large businesses develop small fiefdoms internally, that can adversely effect the picture of the whole.
    Sometimes rules have to moved aside to make up for the ineptitude that the rules present. It takes a leader to recognize an inept situation and with the fortitude to forego the rules. We need more leaders to recognize these sort of situations, and lead!

  • Good for you, Scott. I discovered an infallible way to circumvent the angst of the agents who will invariably have to answer to their superiors as to why the plane was late in departing. When I find myself in this very same situation – staring through the windshield at the many anxious faces in the terminal – I simply tell the lead agent that I have to check something (maintenance wise) on the airplane, and that he/she might as well put those people on board while I do so. I then grab my flashlight and go stand around under the main gear twiddling my thumbs pretending to look at something questionable. It usually takes only five minutes or so. The agents are relieved that the delay is not upon them – I have delayed the flight in the interest of ‘safety’. Everybody wins as I am never second-guessed about my decision; the captain’s word is authoritative and final when it comes to safety of the aircraft. Sometimes I get clearance from the ground crew to pressurize one of the hydraulic systems momentarily then go down to the gear to “check for leaks.” That’s always a good one to use. Merry Christmas.

  • Great story captain, thanks for sharing. The picture you painted of the silhouettes switching from despair to joy gave me the warm fuzzies too. And for what it’s worth, I doubt the performance metrics capture the happiness, relief, and goodwill toward the company you generated that night.

  • I’m a general surgeon (also a pilot) who works in a small rural hospital. We have been owned by several corporations over the years based in major metropolitan areas who would hand down all the various dictums we would have to abide by. Yet it was the medical staff and the rest of the ancillary personnel that really made things happen. I loved Dave’s and Bob’s comments above and realizing how much the healthcare industry has in common with the airlines. “Corporate” has all the answers, but a lot of times they’re not there when the question is asked. Do what needs to be done. It’s a problem when common sense isn’t too common.

  • This warmed my heart. A couple of years ago, getting ready to leave DFW for Monterrey, Mexico, the crew chief advised that we were missing about 70 bags. He thought they must be stuck in the bag room somewhere, and he was distressed at having to leave them. As it was Christmas Eve, we speculated that these missing bags were similar to Santa’s sack. If we left them, it would take days to get them down to Mexico. I managed to get the manager-on-duty involved, he bought into the argument, and we got all of the missing bags…took an hour delay, and likewise, never heard a word.

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