Tuesday, August 20, 2013
Mr. Helmick, A Most Gracious Guest
This past week, I completed the first of two 6-day trips that are on my August schedule. Six days of flying is an ambitious undertaking and represents more than half of a normal month's pay and credit. This particular trip consists of just 4 flights: Houston to Tokyo, Tokyo to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Tokyo and Tokyo to Houston with +/-24 hour breaks in between.
I met Mr. Helmick on the 3rd leg of my trip.
Departing Los Angeles, we were a little tardy due to the continuing "teething pains" of the newest aircraft in our fleet, the Dreamliner. When time to board finally arrived, our customers were generally annoyed and a little anxious. Many of them had onward connections in Tokyo to our many intra-Asia departures. Boarding was dominated by the bigger-than-life personality of one our most frequent customers (as indicated by his status on our preliminary report.). This loud, overly-familiar fellow was seated on my side of the cabin. He immediately and incessantly demanded what I guess he saw as his due attention. Nevertheless, I managed to address and introduce myself to all of the customers in A zone (18 total) and tried to set a relaxed, gracious tone for our 10+ hour flight.
Mr. Helmick was seated with his father (a man of about my age and also "Mr. Helmick"), just behind my "energy black hole" customer. Each of the Mr. Helmicks was also a very frequent customer, just one level below EBH in frequent flyer status level. I found young Mr. Helmick to be charming, both fully engaged in our interactions and very engaging in his on right. I only mention that fact because young Mr. Helmick was profoundly mentally challenged.
Eye contact, a warm and welcoming smile, loads of pleases and thank yous marked my every interaction with young Mr. Helmick. Despite his difficulty grasping every exchange on the first try, his attentiveness and desire to participate in those exchanges are starkly different from the typical young person these days. Most can only communicate on a "get by" level while their attention is locked onto whatever electronic entertainment or communications device happens to be the rage of the day. I'm sorry to say that MY generation of parents is responsible for birthing and "raising" a race of warm-blooded cyborgs! I shudder to think what the next 20 to 30 years will bring as these automatons reach an age of accountability and responsibility for those of us who are coming into our "golden years": "What do you mean it is MY responsibility to care for you as you get older? What's in it for me?" (I'm glad that I enjoy my job! Looks like I'll be attached to the end of an airplane barcart until I drop!)
Young Mr. Helmick was happy to oblige my request that he call me by name if he needed anything during the flight. His liberal use of "Tony" was alternately punctuated by, "My good man!". Sometimes both issued forth in my direction while I was on the opposite side of our wide-bodied jet cabin, to the apparent chagrin of some of our other guests. I just smiled and nodded, occasionally raising a finger to indicate that I would be right here. More often than not, the urgent call issued forth for yet-another-refill of his glass of Sprite. He drank us dry in A zone within the first 2 hours of our flight!! The B zone stock was depleted a short time later.
When I offered warm bread during our "setup" service, young Mr. Helmick eagerly said, "yes, please". I extended the linen-lined silver basket with my tongs at the ready. As I began to explain the different selections, my young guest succumbed to his desire to test all of the options and "manually" cleared the deck. The elder Mr. Helmick's eyes rolled and he moved to correct his son's over-zealousness. "No worries, Mr. Helmick!", I said quickly. "I'll just freshen up our selection in the galley." Good thing the Helmicks were sitting in the last row! What second bread service? None today!
And so it went. Near the end of every flight, I address each customer in my area by name to thank them for continuing to choose my airline-employer for their travel needs. Somehow, on this day, I knew that my "closings" would be memorable. I had completed thanking about 3/4 of the cabin and was nearing my Energy Black Hole. To my surprise, as I came near, he sat up straight (the first time all day) and waited attentively. "Mr. Portillo, Mr. EBH, it ws my honor to serve you today. I hope that everything was satisfactory. Thank you so much for choosing us. And Mr. EBH, thank you so much for being one of our very best customers. We appreciate your loyalty." I was astounded by the eye contact and warmth of his response! Mr. EBH thanked me as graciously for my service as I've ever been thanked. You just never know...
I think I'll keep my final exchange with young Mr. Helmick to myself. It was moving. I genuinely look forward to seeing him again someday!
The way I see it, my job is as much about making our guests comfortable and anxiety-free as it is about serving food or, God forbid, evacuating a smoldering aircraft. Different guests require different approaches to feel comfortable, of course. My Energy Black Hole guest, for example, was the diametric opposite on a "need level" basis of my young Mr. Helmick. It was both challenging and entertaining to meet the two distinct need levels in such close proximity, one to the other. More remarkable still is that, in my memory, they might as well have been my only two guests that day! I can remember the others; Mr. Okayama and son, Mr. Portillo, Mr. Shull, Mr. Kimpara, the elder Mr. Helmick and Mr. Davis, who were also my direct responsibility. But those others were not my focus.
No. That day, for that long flight, I was laser-focused on the yin and the yang: my Energy Black Hole and my young Mr. Helmick, a MOST gracious guest!
Is it possible that Mr. EBH was paying attention and learning a lesson in civility from a most unlikely teacher?