Vulnerability Equals Opportunity (As Told to Ralph on the Big White Phone)

WARNING: This article is not for the faint of heart or easily queasy. It relates a dramatic tale of food poisoning at 35,000 feet, and how Southwest Airlines handled a challenging situation. If you believe that professionalism should never involve the word “chunky,” click here for something less disturbing.

Prelude to trouble

In November, I went to the IAAPA Attractions Expo in Florida. It was a great conference and a great opportunity for me to learn more about the themed entertainment industry. (If you regularly read this blog, you know that I have a slight Disney problem, so the idea of consulting to that industry appeals to me tremendously.)

The conference was enormous and exciting, the weather was good, and in the evenings I slipped over to Walt Disney World and visited the parks. On the last day I had a heavy breakfast so I didn’t really eat lunch; I figured I’d grab a mid-day snack and then maybe find some dinner at the airport while I waited for my flight home. I stopped by Disney Springs (the former Downtown Disney), grabbed a gelato from a new shop, and headed to the airport. Returned the rental car, checked in, got through security, and hung out until flight time—so far, so good. The plane began boarding on time, I scored an aisle seat (rather than the dreaded middle seat) despite being in the last boarding group, and all was great.

Until it wasn’t.

Sitting there as the remaining passengers boarded and got settled, I began to feel queasy. Not good. I took an antacid, thinking that perhaps my less-than-stellar dietary habits for the day were catching up to me. As the final passengers buckled in and the attendants closed up the overhead storage, I started to realize that this probably wasn’t going to be a mild case of heartburn.

I’ve got a bad feeling about this

And here I was, on a plane, about to take off and spend two-and-a-half hours in the air. Okay, I said to myself, let’s just make it through takeoff and then casually saunter up to the restroom once the seatbelt light is off, then I can get through the worst of it and make it home. I congratulated myself internally: Great plan, self! The young couple with their toddler to the left of me saw that I was quiet and slowly turning green; they did not seem to share my internal voice’s enthusiasm for my plan.

The attendants closed the cabin door and the plane pulled away from the gate. Ten minutes, self. Just hang in there, I thought. Sadly, the toxic invaders of my digestive system had other plans. Realizing that ten minutes was not going to happen, I flagged an attendant just as he was rushing to his seat to buckle in.

“I’m really sorry, and I realize this is a terrible time, but I suddenly feel really ill. Can I visit the restroom?” I figured that was a more polite request than “GET OUT OF MY WAY! I’M GONNA HURL!”

“Now?” he said. “We’re taxiing for takeoff!”

“I know,” I replied, wondering if sixty seconds was even going to be a feasible delay. “I wouldn’t ask if I weren’t really ill.”

At that point he recognized just how distressed I was, and said, “Do you need us to go back to the gate?” What? I never imagined that that was even an option.

“No, I think I’ll be okay if I just get a chance to use the restroom,” I replied.

“Are you sure? We’ll turn the plane right around for you.” I was astonished, but assured him I’d be fine. “Okay, hang on, I’ll go talk to the pilot.” Fifteen seconds later he came back and waved me forward as I heard the pilot come on the intercom and say, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to have a short delay before we take off.”

Gratefully I rushed to the front restroom. It was painfully obvious to everyone on the plane that I was the cause of the delay, but I appreciated that the pilot hadn’t announced “A passenger in row 8 needs to toss his cookies, so we’re going to give him a few moments to pray to the porcelain god.”

Who am I kidding. Airplane toilets aren’t porcelain, they’re plastic.

I’m over six feet tall, so I’ll spare you the amusing contortions necessary to execute déja food in an aircraft bathroom. At that point I was just supremely happy that I wasn’t ruining the day of the young couple in my row in a much more graphic fashion.

While it was clear that I was a bit sicker than I had hoped, the resolution was nowhere near as swift as I thought it would be. There is no feeling that quite compares to being violently ill in a tiny aircraft bathroom while a fully-loaded 737 waits for you. The attendant gently knocked on the door after a few minutes. “Buddy, are you okay? Are you going to come out soon?”

After what felt like hours but what was realistically probably five minutes I felt stable enough to exit the restroom. Two concerned attendants asked me how I was feeling. “I’m okay,” I said.

“Are you sure?” they asked. “We’ll take you back in a heartbeat.” I assured them that I was fine and returned to my seat, and off we went.

Hurling into the air

Since I’m writing an entire article about it, you can probably guess that I wasn’t as fine as I thought. As we were approaching our cruising altitude an attendant checked on me again, and by then it was time to rush forward and chunderspew again. As I mentioned in my post on great organizations, the attendant knew when it was appropriate to bend the rules and let me up, even though the seatbelt sign was still on.

I spent most of the flight in my own private cabin for one, yawning in technicolor and praying for an early death. I was sick. I had full-blown food poisoning and was miserable as could be.

Throughout my entire ordeal, the attendants were great. They gently knocked on the door every once in a while to ask if I was okay. They brought me ginger ale. When I developed a fever and started to shiver (still dressed for Florida, I hadn’t brought a jacket or sweater) one of the crew gave me her personal blanket. As we approached Philadelphia, they asked me if I wanted medical attention when we landed. At first I waved them off, but as I got sicker I had second thoughts. (Protip: looking like you might be carrying a life-threatening disease is a great way to get off of the plane first.) They ended up helping me from the plane to a wheelchair to be checked by a medic. In the end I avoided hospitalization; my awesome wife Marcia came and picked me up and took me home. Two days later I was mostly recovered.

Vulnerability is opportunity

That kind of illness is never fun, but when traveling there’s a whole extra serving of vulnerability layered on top. The Southwest crew did everything they possibly could to make a bad situation better; they bent the rules where it made sense, were proactive, and anticipated and responded to my needs. They were willing to inconvenience themselves, their company, and even their other customers to return me to the gate if needed.

I later joked with my family that other airlines would have charged me $5 for the first barf bag, then $2 for each one thereafter, with a special $50 restroom occupancy fee.

A vulnerable customer presents a tremendous opportunity to get things very right or very, very wrong. Just “normal” behavior from the flight crew would have resulted in an absolutely horrific experience and a very different tone to this blog entry. But by rising to the occasion and acknowledging that I needed extra care, the crew stood out and gave me a story that, while not exactly happy, is certainly admirable.

I was already a loyal Southwest customer, but now I’m a raving fan. That, my friends, is how you do it.

Interested in keeping in touch? Sign up for our newsletter.