Fly the Friendly Skies - United Earned My Business

Airline travel gets a pretty bad rap these days, but one must give credit where credit is due. And United Airlines has earned my deepest gratitude.

Several weeks ago a group of my 8th grade students departed on a long-anticipated trip to China. Accompanied by four chaperones and staff from a company called ChinaPrep, they arrived in Shanghai, ready for a great adventure. The flight was uneventful, other than one student's sore throat.

Unfortunately, the sore throat was the prelude to a very serious illness. The student's fever spiked to 104 degrees, prompting several emergency room visits in Hangzhou and Shanghai. After several treatment efforts failed to relieve the increasingly troubling symptoms, the student was hospitalized in Shanghai. A 24-hour rotation of school chaperones and tour company staff tended to the student while the rest of the trip went on as planned.

The student's condition deteriorated and her mother flew from New York City to be with her. Having not been prepared for travel, the mother had no visa and was limited to72 hours in China. The goal was to transfer the student to a New York City hospital, where more sophisticated testing might identify the root cause of the alarming illness. The student required supplemental oxygen with increasing frequency and had grown progressively weaker.

After complex negotiations between and among Chinese officials, hospital medical staff and a physician for the insurance company, the student was finally cleared for travel to the United States. She would be accompanied by a medical evacuation nurse and would need supplemental oxygen for the flight. Coincidentally, the timing was such that she would be returning with the entire tour group on the regularly scheduled United Airlines flight. The clock was ticking on the mother's limited time in China, but the flight time was just within the window of her authorized stay.

During this medical crisis I was in regular contact with our chaperones and the ChinaPrep owner. Due to a 12-hour time difference, my conversations were often in lieu of sleep. But sleep could wait.

And then the straw that nearly broke the camel's back. At about 2:00 a.m. on Monday, June 23rd, one of the chaperones called me in desperation. All was set, he said, except one crucial thing: Airlines require 48 hours advance approval for oxygen on any flight. The scheduled departure was only 12 hours away. The highly experienced tour folks and our staff ran into one brick wall after another. They had appealed to airline and airport officials. They talked to diplomats. Iron clad rule. No exceptions. The mother's time was running out, the entire delegation was coming home, and the student could not board the plane with oxygen. "Can you think of anything to do?" "Ummmm," I replied, half asleep, "I don't have a clue." "Well," my colleague groaned, "if you get a thunderbolt, let us know."

It may be hyperbole to call this a life and death situation - but it may have been. I rolled restlessly in bed. Do I know anyone in the airline business? Can my U.S. Senator help? (At 2:00 a.m.!) I won't elaborate, but after 20 minutes of web browsing, I found the names of the top five or six United Airlines executives in the world. I also found an email address for a low level employee that hinted at the standard email format for United. At 2:32 a.m. I sent urgent emails to four United Airlines executives, including Jeff Smisek, the Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer of the $3 billion company. Talk about a stab in the dark! I had no idea if my guess at email addresses was accurate, and I surely didn't expect any top executives for United (or any other major corporation) to open an email from out of the blue in the middle of the night. Knowing this was an exercise in futility, I waited for Senator Charles Schumer's office to open in the morning. I went to work, my concern growing deeper with every passing hour.

At about 8:00 a.m. my wife called me at school. "You got a call from a guy at United Airlines," she said. "He said he also emailed you." The call and email were from Joseph Chia, a man I later identified as the Regional Director for all United Airlines Asia-Pacific operations. He had called from Hong Kong. I called him back and the rest is history. This wonderful man approved oxygen for the flight. He also reserved three business class seats for our student, her mother and the evacuation nurse. United officials greeted our entourage at the Shanghai airport to facilitate boarding and were awaiting the plane in Newark to coordinate transport to NYU Medical Center.

Simply amazing. My cold emails at 2:30 a.m., sent to "guessed" addresses, reached someone who set this in motion. Two days later, still shaking my head in gratitude and disbelief, I sent emails again to the four executives, thanking them profusely for the astonishing response. I had no idea who actually got the message and acted. To say I was curious was an understatement. In mere moments I got my answer. "Thanks, Steve. Joseph, great job!" Signed: Jeff.

Jeff Smisek, Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer. Now that's hands-on leadership! Had I not asked, I would have never known of his involvement.

Friendly Skies indeed! Fly United. I will, whenever possible.