As an airline pilot I’ve had the opportunity to carry countless passengers to their work, vacations, families & homes. The makeup and sheer diversity of those passengers has always helped remind me of the larger world we all share. One morning several years ago one passenger in particular got my attention and her story suddenly has a bigger meaning that I felt I needed to share.
The morning started out fairly routine, I stopped by my usual place in Chicago’s O’hare airport for a coffee then headed toward the gate to get ready to fly to Omaha, Nebraska to start a day of flying. Upon arriving at the gate I noticed a passenger that I would not have necessarily expected on a flight to Omaha. Sitting in a wheelchair was a woman that seemed anxious, exhausted, and frightened. She wore a very colorful but ragged dress & head scarf, had but a single shoe and quite literally looked as if she had been pulled straight from a remote village somewhere in Africa. In fact she actually had been as I would shortly learn.
She appeared to have no one else traveling with her and attending to her were two young volunteers from the O’hare Traveler’s Assistance program. One of which waved me over and asked me to step aside as I was the Captain on the flight and he wanted to ensure our crew was aware of her story. Or as much as they knew anyway.
Turns out this poor woman had just spent the night huddled in a staircase at O’hare’s airport. Alone & frightened an airport worker found her around 6am sobbing to the cold concrete. She didn’t speak a word of English and as best as the volunteers could tell, she had somehow missed her flight to Omaha the previous night and didn’t know what else to do. All she had with her was a plastic bag that contained her documents, contact info for her family and a letter in broken english stating where she was going along. Her boarding passes indicated she had connected through Frankfurt, Germany with a continuing ticket to Omaha.
So all we knew is that this anxious and scared woman was trying to get to her family in Omaha and escaping the civil war that was happening in Sudan at the time. She was a refugee.
Suddenly, I knew that I had to see her through all the way to her family in Omaha. The volunteers made certain her concerned family was notified of her being safe and was now on her way to Omaha. I thanked the volunteers for sticking to her side all morning and assured them we’d see her through to her family.
I head down the jet bridge to the aircraft and briefed my crew who were already preparing for the flight. My crew was blown away by the story and was instantly ready to assist. We boarded our new friend ahead of the other passengers and helped her get settled and comfortable. Finally a faint smile broke out on her face as she realized our caring crew was going to go her to her family. This was the final leg in what I can only imagine had been a long and arduous journey.
Once we landed in Omaha we didn’t have a lot of time on the ground before our return flight to Chicago as per standard operations but I was going to ensure she got to her family before we left. I left my crew to prep the plane for the return flight and walked along side our new friend who was beginning to realize her journey was complete. We shared a smile and then as we rounded the last corner toward the terminal exit her face finally lit up. Her family was there waiting, happy, excited, relieved. I stopped, watched for a moment as they embraced, wiped a growing tear from my eye and then headed back to my plane to continue our day.