When is it OK to hold a plane for a tardy traveler?

Holding a plane for a passenger is an iconic customer service gesture.

In a different era of commercial aviation, before on-time arrivals became so important that aircraft doors closed 15 minutes before departure, planes were almost routinely kept at the gate for passengers who were trying to make a connection or who were just late.

Which made the story of Kerry Drake, a grief-stricken United Airlines passenger who was trying to catch a flight from San Francisco to Lubbock, Tex., so that he could say goodbye to his dying mother, so remarkable – and heartwarming.

A kind flight attendant named Sofia supplied Drake with a seemingly endless supply of napkins to dry his tears during the flight. And when it looked as though he might miss his connection in Houston, the pilot of that flight arranged for the aircraft to be held long enough for him to sprint to his gate.

“Had I missed my flight to Lubbock, I would not have been able to tell my mom goodbye,” Drake told me. “When she died, I realized that I was wiping away my tears with the extra United napkins that Sofia had given me the day before.”

When I reported this story recently on my consumer advocacy site, I expected readers to say, “Finally!” At last, an airline like United is doing something good for its customers instead of adding another fee or throwing the rule book in their faces. Instead, it triggered an interesting debate about the current state of air travel that suggests that keeping a plane at the gate for one passenger may not necessarily be the best way to gauge an airline’s commitment to customer service.

Some passengers loved the “hold the plane” tale, of course.

“Finally, a story about airlines and staff that have heart,” said Brenda Rivera, a fitness instructor from Round Rock, Texas. “I know it’s a hard business to be in, and I know so many negative things are said, but it’s nice to know that this story shows that there are people behind the big-name airlines who care. Way to go, United.”

But that’s not all that people had to say. Though many appreciated the airline’s efforts to help a passenger in need, they pointed out that hundreds of other passengers on the flight from Houston to Lubbock were affected by the delay. What about them?

“There’s a ripple effect from an action like this, and it’s undeniable that many people were adversely affected by it, beyond just the passengers on the plane,” another traveler noted. “Perhaps even someone else with a similar circumstance who didn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve and therefore wasn’t catered to.”

To get an idea of how rare a “hold the plane” story is, consider what happened to a client of San Francisco-based travel agent Janice Hough who recently tried to catch a last-minute overnight flight on United. Because the client was a Global Services-level member of United’s Mileage Plus frequent-flier program, the airline had every reason to hold the aircraft for him. In fact, one of the unspoken benefits of this elite level is that the airline will hold a plane for you under certain conditions.

“The first agent he talked with told him that there was space” on the flight, Hough remembers, urging him to “run” to the gate. “But when he got to the gate, the door was closed and despite empty seats, the agent there told him that he couldn’t board, although the plane didn’t leave for another 15 minutes.”

I asked United about its policy of holding aircraft, and a representative said that it has recently been revised to allow gate agents to selectively allow passengers to board even after the doors have officially been closed. To be clear, the pressure for an on-time departure is still there, but agents will now be “empowered” to bend a rule when appropriate.

Holding a plane for the right passenger can be a public relations coup for an airline. Consider what happened when Southwest Airlines held a flight from Los Angeles to Tucson in 2011, which I also reported on my site. Passenger Mark Dickinson needed to say a final goodbye to his 2½-year-old grandson, who was about to be taken off life support. Hearing of his plight, the Southwest pilot held the plane for 12 minutes.

“They can’t go anywhere without me, and I wasn’t going anywhere without you,” the pilot told Dickinson when he reached the gate.

Keeping a plane at the gate may be the ultimate way to say, “We care.” It requires that an employee ignore years of training and be willing to face real consequences on an upcoming performance review. The message is unmistakable: You’re important to us. Really important. Whether you’re on vacation or flying home to see a dying relative, you’re special. And we’re in the business of transporting people, after all.

“Passengers ask us to hold the plane all the time,” says Heather Poole, a flight attendant for a major airline. Almost as often, the request is denied, unless a significant number of passengers need to connect with the same flight. “On-time departures are way too important,” Poole adds.

Personally, I’d love to report a few more planes-being-held stories.

They suggest that airline employees truly understand that their customers are more than dollars to the bottom line – they’re passengers.

But something tells me that these stories will remain exceedingly rare, which means that maybe travelers should find another way of determining whether their airline really loves them.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Email him at celliott@ngs.org, or troubleshoot your trip through his website, www.elliott.org. Distributed by Tribune Media Services.