United Pilot Saves The Day For Four Passengers Stranded At Chicago O’Hare

Last year United rolled out ConnectionSaver to help customers make connecting flights when their inbound aircraft is delayed. 25% of United’s flights are expected to arrive 10 minutes early so their computers will decide when it makes sense to hold a flight for connecting passengers.

Sometimes when the computer doesn’t hold a flight a pilot steps in to help, like this Delta Connection pilot did returning to the gate to get a family to a funeral on time.

Washington Post national political correspondent Jenna Johnson tried to make a quick trip home to D.C. on United after the Nevada caucuses, a surprise for her husband who wasn’t expecting to see her until after Super Tuesday.

She didn’t make her Las Vegas – Washington Dulles flight, while roads into the airport were closed off while the President left town, but United rebooked her onto a connecting flight through Chicago. It went mechanical, jeopardizing her O’Hare connection. And when United passengers are stranded overnight at O’Hare it’s especially miserable.

She ultimately landed in Chicago, getting off her Las Vegas flight 4 gates away from her connection just 5 minutes before it was supposed to depart. Doors should have already been closed, and they were. However the captain saw four passengers left behind and ordered the doors back open.

American Airlines, sadly, fails to learn the lesson of British prisoner transport ships in the late 1800s. Although American’s gate agents are allowed to wait until 5 minutes to departure to close the boarding door of the last flight of the night, CEO Doug Parker has explicitly told his pilots not to do what this United pilot did.

It’s too bad this Big Bang Theory actress didn’t get as lucky as the political reporter when she flew United!

(HT: Reid F.)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I had a similar experience with a flight to Brazil. There were 8 of us at the gate….running from a late United flight to make the connection. The gate agent, closed the gate. I phoned a friend who was on the plane, and she told the flight crew that there were passengers outside. The captain ordered the doors re-opened…..the the gate re-opened. Once on board, I wrote him a note, and I wrote to United to tell them exactly what had happened, and commending the captain. UA had had other complaints about the gate agent….and that matter was handled. They communicated my gratitude to the captain and further up the food chain.

    Always write a thank you.

  2. Gary, for once I disagree with you and agree with Mr. Parker. I understand about the funeral, but that’s an unusual situation and shouldn’t drive policy. When people book tight connections it’s on them if it gets missed. More than once I’ve been on time and with a loose connection, only to have the incoming plane running late and further delayed by the captain’s waiting for passengers, causing me to miss my connections on the other end. That is: stick to the schedule, please.

  3. @Fred – this instance is a two hour delay that was united’s fault, not a tight connection. tight connections are frequently driven by the airline’s scheduling [moving to banked vs rolling hubs], also the airline’s fault. last flight of the night isn’t forcing the plane load of passengers to miss any of their own connections especially when they’re heading to outstations rather than hubs. so the only issue is whether the plane is sitting at a gate that an arriving aircraft is waiting on, which is easily determined (and far less likely last flight of the night, with banked hubs).

  4. Besides lately the planes are getting a windstream when flying East and getting on early my son flew US last Monday from Ohare to EWR and landed 45 min early! He was at his home before home at 925pm , and the plane was suppose to land at 930 pm . So I am pretty sure that Pilot still made it on time after boarding those people. Good job United Captain .

  5. @RMC
    I agree that the pilot on your flight to Brazil provided extraordinary service in ordering the gate to be reopened for your group, and is deserving of all kudos! These kind of stories make me so very proud to be a retiree of the finest airline in the world! Thank you for sharing. However, your post implies that the gate agent was at fault for closing the door. The truth is, ONLY the captain, or flight dispatch operations, are allowed to make such a decision. The gate agents are permitted only to follow the exact instructions of operations management, and are mandated to close the doors at a particular time. To do otherwise would be considered a deliberate violation of FAA on-time departure regulations, and furthermore, to unilaterally make such a decision would result in a stiff reprimand and could escalate to loss of employment. Too often the traveling public assumes that gate agents are making unfair choices, where in reality they are in constant communication with supervisors and management, and all departments are aware that there are possible misconnecting passengers, who they are, and the time and gate of their arrival. It is standard procedure that the agent asks for permission to wait, is the one paging the passengers to warn that the door is closing soon, and is actively looking for anyone who might be running down the concourse towards the gate. If she spots runners, she will call to notify that runners are close by, however, again, she MUST close the door if ordered to do so. Usually, by this time the jet-bridge has been withdrawn, yet she will ask if it’s possible to put the bridge back up and board the runners. Unfortunately, usually the answer is no, since neither department want to take the hit and the penalty of a FAA flight delay. The agent is required to remain until the plane has been pushed back and quite often has to immediately proceed to work another flight. Yet, by now a group of people have arrived who weren’t able to board. So, the agent then is left with the delimma of getting to her next assignment ontime, or trying to resolve the problems of several angry passengers, who will inevitably take their frustrations out on someone who is simply doing their job as directed. So, the passengers get sent to the customer service counter for assistance. Surely, some angry person will write a scathing report against this agent. But I beg you to consider this question… Has the agent provided poor customer service?

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