If I skewed my words ever so slightly, I know I could easily make my husband, Dave, and me look like the heroes of this story. Instead, I will avoid embellishment, and to the best of my ability, I will tell the straight up truth.
Here is our story:
We decided to fly to London a few days early so we could kick the jet lag before Dave had to be at work on Tuesday. Dave and I arrived at Houston International Airport several hours prior to our flight. We spent that time in the overcrowded Amex Centurion Lounge. After spending a few hours crammed into a cafe table surrounded by our carry on luggage, I realized it was nearly time to board. I put my no-fun compression socks back on, shoved my things back into my travel backpack and we were off to the gate. Our flight to London would be nine to ten hours. Dave and I made our way to Gate E5 in the International Terminal.
Weeks before our trip, Dave used our United Airlines miles to get on a waitlist for an upgrade to Economy Premium or Business Class. As we stood near the gate, we learned that we would not be upgraded. We would be sitting in our original seats. Dave and I both know that’s just how it goes. In fact, we are both top-tier elites at United and this year we never seem to get upgraded. Weird.
Dave walked over to look out the massive floor to ceiling windows. They looked onto the tarmac. I continued to stand near the gate. From our respective places, we both heard it: “Ladies and gentlemen, our flight is oversold. We are offering 50,000 United miles to one passenger who is willing to give up their seat and leave on a later flight.” Before I could think the thoughts, “I bet Dave will want to be bumped,” he was walking over to me, “Beth, should we do it?” “Sure, I said.” (*I am sure in our minds we were both hedging our bets, hoping that if we left on a later flight, we would get better seats, or at least the next plane would not be as crowded.)
We walked up to the gate desk and the agent quickly told us they only needed one volunteer, “not two,” she snapped. We took a deep breath and accepted our fate. Minutes later we were sitting on that very same oversold flight. We left our aisle assigned seat open and Dave graciously sat in the middle seat.
Right about then our cabinet guy called. I answered and we talked about warranties and waiting to figure things out until I returned to Utah. As I hung up, Dave said. “They made the announcement. They still needed just one person to give up their seat. This time they are offering a $1,500 flight credit. “Beth, why don’t you try this time?” My response was somewhere between annoyed, uncertain, and humorous: “what the hell, I’ll indulge Dave.”
At that, I motioned to the closest flight attendant (Sara – not sure with or without an “h.”) She walked over to our seats. I asked and offered: “It needs to be the two of us. We are happy to take the credit for just one.” Quickly she texted something into her phone. I watched her read the message and then she asked me to follow her.
I followed her to the entrance of the plane. We were surrounded by two other flight attendants. Sara asked me to share my offer with them. “Well, I have one person ahead of you.” One of the flight attendants interrupted. “I will take credit for one of us.” I responded. At once all three flight attendants looked at eachother, and in a cue Beyonce, “Who run the world, GIRLS, (girls),” moment, they looked back at me, collectively shook their heads and said, “You fight for yourself! You ask for credit not just for you, but for both of you! You deserve it! Ask for what you want!” (Then I swear they said, “Beth, you are worthy!” But I may have only imagined that part…) I assured these epic flight attendants that I would speak up, that we would be ok, and that the world would be right. They made no promises. I thanked them and went back to my seat.
On my way through the crowded aisles of feet, knees and elbows, a man in Premium Economy asked me about putting his name on this “give up your seat” list. In truth, I was not thrilled that he asked and I was also not very encouraging. I said something like, “There is someone ahead of us, my husband and I.” Then I felt guilty so I added, “Hey, why not give it a try?” I made it back to my seat, sat down and filled Dave in.
A few minutes later, the woman who had the middle seat that Dave was now sitting in, boarded. I could see her shaking as she approached our row. “You can have the aisle seat.” We assured her. Still shaking, she stood next to the aisle seat. She looked at us and began to speak. As she spoke, she began to cry. “This is my second very long flight ever! My partner and I want to sit together.” She motioned as if he were not simply across the aisle, but as if he were in another galaxy: “He is over there! I will wait here.” I could see from her passport she was from Spain. I also knew that she would be more likely to get someone to switch seats with her now that she had our aisle seat.
Honestly, I remember the scary feeling of anticipating turbulence and sitting far away from your loved ones. I watched her texting and saw her body relax. “We have it worked out. We were able to switch places with someone.” She grabbed her things and moved across the plane.
Within seconds I watched as a very large and hairy man walk toward our seat. “Oh no! I thought. “Dave is not going to like this.” The man smiled and sat down. Panic sweat drops covered my lip and the back of my neck. The large hairy main was at least three times as big as the sweet Spanish woman. My empathic anxiety (sweat droplets) were (obviously) for Dave, my middle seat stallion. (And this is why I asked Dave to remain in the middle seat: See, after one too many times of having men enter my personal airplane seat with their wide leg spreading and thigh grabbing, I have learned that I need to have husband or sons serve as buffers. No one crosses them and they keep me safe.) I felt Dave’s irritation. My heart dropped and I thanked him repeatedly for taking one for the team. “Dude, you are the best!” (In the interest of full disclosure, Dave mentioned that perhaps the man was not as big or as hairy as I implied. Dave’s words: “I mean, come on, he is not Hodor!”)
We settled ourselves. I looked around, waiting for the plane to take off. I saw her waving. She was waving at me. She started pointing at her phone. It was Sara, our lovely flight attendant. “You still want to take another flight? Quick! Grab all your things. You both good? I need to let them know you are in.” Sara stood behind our seats. I nodded and gave her a double thumb’s up.
Dave, who I am sure did not immediately see her, was confused and startled. “Dave. No really. Quick. Grab all your things. We need to get off the plane.” “What? Really” We grabbed our things and followed Sara. She told us that they had accepted our bid and we would be on a flight to London the next day.
For his seat-switching-generosity, I was hoping the giant hairy man would get the row to himself. After seeing the standby list, and listening to the woman scream at the gate agent, “How many four years olds do you know who are allowed to sit alone? Move my child now,” I am certain the plane would remain packed.
There we were, standing back at Gate E5. Sara said she would wait with us until the gate agent confirmed we were good to go. “I don’t want you to get stuck in Houston. I don’t want you to miss your next flight.” We thanked her and said that the sad thing about leaving her flight was her and the other flight crew: “We fly often. It’s always so wonderful when we encounter a flight crew like yours. Thank you for being so awesome!” Sara sweetly smiled and walked back onto the plane.
I continued to watch and listen to impatient, frustrated and angry passengers. Our gate agent was entirely focused on trying to situate Dave and me. Then Dave reminded him that we would be ok racing to catch that flight to Boston that they had mentioned on the plane announcement earlier. “Really?” He said. “Really.” we responded. “Well let me see if I can make that work.” He made it work. Going through Boston would mean that we would only arrive in London a few hours later than we had planned. It was a lot better than staying in a Houston airport hotel until the next day.
In the sea of screaming passengers, one clearly pissed-off the gate agent, all the other gate agents and the man working on our new flight, stood a woman. She was standing very close to me, quietly, graciously. I was so focused on myself that it took me several minutes to realize that maybe she was trying to get on that Houston to London flight as well.
As we stood waiting, I noticed her beautiful french manicure. She seemed a little nervous, kind of like our shaky, Spanish former seat-mate. I am someone who likes to talk to strangers. As a result, I said, “I love your manicure. It is very pretty.”
“My granddaughter goes to beauty school. She did it.” “She did an excellent job.” I said. I asked if she was trying to get on the flight. “Yes I am trying to get to my grandchild’s….how do you say the thing when they are baptized?” I noticed her Guatemalan passport and said, “I say sprinkling, but I think most people say christening.” I responded.
“Oh, Christening. Christening. Christening.” She said it three times to make it stick. She followed with, “Thank you for your seats.” That is literally when it occurred to me that this was the passenger we were giving our seats to. “Of course. We are happy to.” I said.
“Thank you very much. My husband died a few months ago.” She looked up in the air: “I told him that I really needed to get on this flight.” I started to choke up. She continued, “I don’t drive. My son-in-law is driving around the airport waiting to see if I get on the plane. My grandchild’s Christening is tomorrow. They gave me this ticket.” She pulled out her ticket and showed it to me: “See gate agent.” She did not understand that she was not confirmed on the flight.
I looked at her and said, “I think your husband is listening. I think he wants you to get on this flight. He is looking out for you. He must have known what to do to get you on that plane.” We laughed and then we both cried. I gave her a hug and asked her her name. “I am Gladys.” “Gladys, I hope you have an excellent time in England.” I said. She had her seat and thanked us again.
At that our super focused gate agent urged Dave and me to run to Gate C35: “Your flight to Boston is boarding now! I have confirmed seats for you.” “Are you sure?” We asked. “Yes. Now run. I will call the gate and let them know you are on your way.” Dave and I ran to gate C35. At first we ran like the wind and then, like at the halfway point I pleaded with Dave to slow down: “Dude, I’m going to pass out!”
We arrived at gate C35. The gate agent dude looked at us contemptuously as we asked about boarding. “Um, you are not boarding. We’re not sure yet whether we’ll have seats for you. You are on standby.” Then he thrust his arm out in the direction of the seats: “Sit there. I will let you know if you can get on the plane.” We weren’t happy to learn that we were on standby. That wasn’t part of the deal.
Everyone boarded, even the people running from their tight connections. One man was turned away. A supervisor came out. I heard a lot of serious talk. We learned that some of the exit row seats were broken and that everyone may have to deplane. Then, Sharon, the very kind and wise supervisor walked over to us: “Don’t worry. I will get you on the plane.” She and I talked about Gladys, talked about being in the right place at the right time, and we talked about how the world could use some kindness. Sharon, the very kind United supervisor, got us on the plane.
Hours later, with my compression socks still suffocating my calves, we arrived at the gate ready to board our Boston to London redeye when Dave and I realized the magic that had descended on our very weird and long day. It was at that moment we realized that we were on the inaugural United Boston-to-London nonstop flight. There were United executives at the gate doing a photoshoot, a balloon arch, and a table spread with fruit trays, tea, and shortbread. There were gift bags for all the passengers. They gave us little lapel pins with the USA and UK flags. It was a party and it was a pretty amazing experience. We made it to London just over three hours after our original scheduled landing. Our flight attendant was just as kind. He held my hand in said, “Thank you, Mrs. Adams. It was our pleasure to have you on this flight.”
We have been in London since Friday. We started the first thirty hours without our checked luggage. I was disappointed to learn that the United lost baggage lady misinformed us regarding assistance.
While our luggage remained in Houston, we Uber’d our way to our first destination, this amazing place called Monkey Island Estate near the village of Bray. We saw no Monkeys, but did find two three-Michelin-starred restaurants: The Fat Duck and The Waterside Inn. No. We did not eat at these fine establishments. We opted for sandwiches and yogurts from the Sainsburys grocery store. I promise we will be back and I am leaning towards The Fat Duck! While on our Monkey Island getaway, we also walked for miles and miles and miles just like Mormon pioneer children. To the relief of my blistered and bleeding feet, we found a Nike Outlet, and I was able to buy new sneakers. After our delightful weekend, we made our way to London via the best smelling Uber ever. Our driver, whose other job is as a counselor for people with Autism, was even better.
London was a whirlwind of museums, epic walks, city bikes, one play, Neil Gaiman’s, “The Ocean At The End Of The Lane,” an amazing Graffiti Tunnel, crossing several bridges, and lots and lots of Tesco Meal Deals. I think I liked the Temple Church the most. It is the place where Dave and I experienced a total meltdown last time we were here. We visited the church together. I took a picture in the bathroom by myself. We learned about William Marshal, the Magna Carta and the US Constitution and then we made our way over to the Museum of London, where we not only learned that the Romans were the first to settle London in like 20BC, we Face-timed with son #1 in a museum stairwell. On our way back to the hotel, we took the route that led us through Postman’s Park. There, at the end of this tiny, beautiful space we came across a covered shelter. The shelter is called, “The G.F. Watt’s Memorial To Heroic Self Sacrifice.” In it we found tiles dedicated to people who gave their lives to save another. Many were killed saving someone from drowning. Others lost their lives saving people from fires. And then there were Arthur Strange and Mark Tomlinson, “on a desperate venture to save two girls from quicksand in Lincolnshire were themselves engulfed on August 25, 1902.” It was an oddly and very humbling full circle moment. Dave and I gave our seats so a sweet widow could make it to her granddaughter’s christening. Arguably, we benefitted far more than the act of giving up our seats. And here we stood, learning about all these cool British people who gave up their lives for nothing more than to save someone else.
Now we are back at the hotel. I have been in a relaxed frenzy reorganizing our things. I think we are packed. I should be asleep. We leave in the morning for Australia.
(PS. I am posting from the LHR airport lounge. When I have a little more time, I will add captions to the pictures and add more links. Thank you for reading.)