By David Lund
I was scheduled to speak at a conference in Wisconsin in late April of 2016. While I was preparing for my speech, I learned of my father-in-law’s hospitalization due to pneumonia.
Johanne was working that week in San Francisco. JP was 82 and had been struggling a bit of late. He was legally blind and had a heart condition. The drugs they needed to give him to fight the pneumonia were going to affect his heart medication, so it didn’t look good.
Johanne decided to go see her father and I changed my flight back from Wisconsin to go to Quebec City after my speaking engagement which was now a week away.
A few short days later JP passed away with his children, wife and minister at his side.
He was a great man, very kind and thoughtful, a skilled and well-regarded urologist and the father of five. The best father-in-law a guy could ask for. We all miss him greatly.
Now my flight to see my father-in-law was a flight to go to his funeral. My speaking gig was on Friday and the service was scheduled for 2 p.m. on Saturday. I woke at 4 a.m. on Saturday to hop in a cab to the airport in Milwaukee to catch a 5:45 a.m. flight to Detroit, connecting through JFK, then on to Quebec City.
Checking my email in the cab I saw the note from Delta, the flight from Detroit to JFK was delayed. With this delay, there was no way I would make the departure from JFK to Quebec City. I got on the plane in Milwaukee and contemplated what to do. I thought I needed to get on another flight out of Detroit to either Montreal or Toronto and figure it out from there.
My flight touched down in Detroit at 8 a.m. EST. I got off the flight and saw there was a 9 a.m. flight to Montreal. I went to the Delta desk and they directed me to a bank of red phones. I picked up the line and told the lady on the other end my story and she offered me a seat on the 9 a.m. flight to Montreal and a 2 p.m. flight on Air Canada to Quebec City. I saw on my phone that the flight was to arrive at 10:40 and there was an 11 a.m. flight to Quebec City. She told me the computer will not book that flight because the time between landing and take-off was not sufficient and the 11 a.m. flight was full.
I needed to get on that 11 a.m. flight. I thought about renting a car and driving but that’s a tall order from the west side of Montreal midday on Saturday. I called Johanne before I took off and told her about my predicament. “Don’t rent a car,” she said, “It’s too dangerous as you will drive too fast!”
First thing I know the pilot was telling us we were getting ready to make our descent and were arriving 20 minutes early – thanks to a nice tailwind. On the ground, we taxied for what seemed like forever and finally stopped at the U.S. gates at the western end of the airport.
Next, I ran to Customs and presented myself to the agent—no lineup and I was off to the departure level to check in and acquire a boarding pass from Air Canada. The lady at the counter saw my 2 p.m. reservation and I quickly told her I must be on the 11 a.m. flight because I had a funeral to attend.
She punched up a few buttons and told me the flight was full and put me on the waitlist. I grabbed my 2 p.m. boarding card and ran for the security screening. Again, no lineup and I got through security quickly. I don’t know the distance from the U.S. gates to check-in and then out to the gates that take you under the runway at Trudeau airport but it’s a long distance – these two points in this airport are the furthest apart. I was running with luggage and a big briefcase. Finally, I arrived at the gate and the departure lounge was busy with people, but they had not boarded yet. It was 10:55 a.m.
I presented myself to the gate agent. She was busy punching away at her computer and it took a moment for me to get her attention. I told her about my Delta flights, the 2 p.m. reservation here, the funeral and the need to get on the 11 a.m. flight. She punched keys a few times on her keyboard and then she told me the 11 a.m. flight was full.
“There is nothing I can do,” she said. My heart sunk in my chest and the words that came out of my mouth were not rehearsed or thought about, they just came out.
“Would you make an announcement and ask the passengers in the lounge if they would be willing to give up their seat and trade with me for the 2 p.m. flight?” I asked.
Well, she looked at me in a very funny way, like as if to say, “Who the hell are you to ask such a thing?” At least that was the story I was telling myself at that moment as her expression stared me down. Then she said, “OK – I will make the announcement for you.”
She relayed a simple message in French and English over the PA system, “I have a passenger here who has a reservation on the 2 p.m. flight. He has a family emergency and is asking anyone on the 11 a.m. flight if they would be willing to change flights with him.”
Well, I heard the message and felt like I was two feet tall—everyone must be staring at me—and at the same time I also felt like I just had a brush with God. What propelled me to make such a request and what would happen next?
I sat down kind of close to the counter and waited. I said a short prayer which included asking JP to help. It was now 11:15 and several people had come to see the gate agent, and I’m thinking they were asking about the flight now being late.
A couple of moments later she gestured to me to come to the desk. I did and she told me two passengers gave their seats up for me! Amazing, but she then told me the flight was still full and now overbooked. She mumbled something about the computer. She told me to take a seat as she needed to sort this out. She promptly made an announcement to the lounge that the flight was delayed till 11:40, apologized and provided no reasons why.
I sat back down and soon a young man joined me. He smiled and I asked him where he was headed. He said Quebec City but not till 2 p.m. as he gave up his seat for the guy with the family emergency.
“That’s me,” I said.
He said, “I know it is.”
I inquired about where he was coming from and he said he had been to a leadership summit in Ontario for a week. Well, this kid will be a great leader, sooner than later, I thought.
So, it was now well past 11:40 and still no boarding calls. The little lady was on the phone, viciously working the computer and the lounge was starting to get loud. You could feel the frustration building. I was thinking this is not the way I should have handled the situation—leaving my fate up to Air Canada. I should have rented the car and could be well on my way by now. Even if I arrived a few minutes late at least I would be there….
The next thing I know the little lady gestured for me to come to the desk again. I did and what she said next was absolutely incredible. I mean, I have flown on hundreds of flights in my life, experienced all of the nightmares that you can have as the flying public in being delayed, canceled, rerouted, and always feeling like you don’t have a choice or a hope in hell.
“I have arranged for a bigger plane for you and everyone will be on it at noon, here is your new boarding pass,” she said.
A bigger plane!
What in the world? I mean, where did she get a bigger plane? Unbelievable. No matter what else happens in my flying experiences I will never forget this or think badly about any airline or their employees.
So as planned we were all on the newly ordered aircraft that left from the adjoining gate at noon. We landed at 1:10 and I grabbed a cab and headed to my mother-in-law’s house which was two blocks away from the church. I had been up since 4 a.m. and was in jeans and unshaven. Not the way I wanted to show up for the service.
I arrived and paid the cab fare, went to the front door and it was locked, went to the back door and the same. Well, no problem because I knew where they hid the key. No key. It was mid-afternoon and late April so it was a bit chilly as I contemplated what to do.
My electric razor and a suit and tie were in my bag. I figured I could just change on the back porch and hide my luggage and briefcase in the garbage bin! I was just about to open my bag to start when I heard a car enter the driveway. Their home was on a busy street with several attached units that are three-story walk-ups.
The car pulled in two units away and a lady got out with some groceries in hand. I approached her and asked, “Bonjour, do you speak English?”
“Yes,” she replied. I then told her I was Jean Pierre’s son-in-law and had been traveling all day to attend his funeral which was starting in 15 minutes and could she possibly help me as I needed to change clothes.
She replied that she didn’t know of his passing and she expressed her sympathies and said she would like to help, but did not have a key to their home.
To which I replied, “I know, but I need to change into my suit and if it is okay with you, I could change in your house.”
She smiled and said, “I should have thought of that, yes, come with me.”
Well, I arrived at the church with barely a moment to spare. I found some other family members outside the church, joined them, and seconds later the hearse and the immediate family pulled up. I have never been so happy to see Johanne and to be there with her. If I had missed that moment, I do not know what I would have done.
I believe JP was watching and something akin to magic or a miracle ensued that day. I didn’t think to get the gate agent’s name and all I want to say to her again is thank you. She is amazing.
I also could say that it was probably easier for Air Canada to switch the planes because they screwed up and overbooked the 11 a.m. flight, but that’s not the story I choose to believe. You and I always have a choice about which story we believe. What are you believing?
Rest in Peace, Jean Pierre – we all miss you.