How Airline Stories Become Tall Tales

I’ve pulled a controversial story out from the archives today. It’s one that was supposed to run on BNET at the beginning of the year, but after heated back and forth discussion, it was shelved by the higher-ups. (They didn’t like me ripping apart another BNET article, it seems.) I actually meant to publish it here on Cranky after my BNET run ended, but it just sat forgotten, gathering dust in my drafts folder. I was browsing through old drafts the other day and realized it never went live. So, here it is . . . .


When a Southwest pilot held a plane for a man who was traveling to be with his daughter in the wake of his granddaughter’s murder, the media erupted with joy. Some people even went as far as calling the pilot a hero. I suppose it’s no surprise, though I can only shake my head and grind my teeth at such loose use of the word.

Heartwarming tales like this one gain a power of their own, and simple actions can be turned into insanely overblown feats of awesomeness. In 25 years, they might call this man a saint for what he did; simply holding an airplane for 12 minutes may morph into him deciding to turn an airplane around against all odds after it took off just to pick this man up. Why do I say that? It’s happened before and will happen again.

Case in point. Peter Greenberg wrote about this Southwest pilot here on BNET. He told a tale of a story that he “wrote years ago.” Too bad this one doesn’t pass the sniff test.

The Rochester Stop Story

Peter recounts that a passenger was flying on the last flight of the day from Minneapolis to Chicago. He stopped the pilot and told him that he was going to Chicago only to spend the night and fly to Rochester, Minnesota in the morning to get his sick son to the Mayo Clinic. I’ll let him take it from there.

“I looked at the route map in your inflight magazine,” the father said, “and noticed you fly right over Rochester on the way to Chicago. Do you think you could just stop and drop us off?”

The pilot thought about it. Then he called air traffic control and explained the situation. Could they possible [sic] route his flight with a stop in Rochester and still get him to Chicago just a little late? After all, it was the last flight of the day and no passengers were connecting to onward flights.

The word from the ATC: Go for it.

In the end, the pilot asked the passengers for permission and they unanimously agreed. And to add a cherry to this sundae, the flight still arrived in Chicago 10 minutes early.

It’s definitely a warm and fuzzy story, but there are so many holes in it that it could double as Swiss cheese.

If this pilot really wanted to help the passenger get to the Mayo Clinic, he should have given him cab fare. The Mayo Clinic is a mere 80 miles on a straight shot from Minneapolis/St Paul Airport. So the idea that someone was taking his sick child to the Mayo Clinic via an overnight in Chicago is downright absurd.

There’s also the issue of why Northwest, an airline with a massive hub in Minneapolis, would route someone via Chicago anyway. The airline did fly from Chicago to Rochester at one point, but it’s been 25 years or more since that happened. Northwest has, however, long had nonstops between Minneapolis and Rochester going all day long. That continues today despite the short distance.

But if that’s not enough, I’ve never heard of anyone asking air traffic control for permission to go somewhere. Sure, if it’s a congested airport and there are weather problems then you may be delayed going into that airport, but I think we can all assume that Rochester has never had that problem. And can we really believe that there was enough schedule padding that long ago that even with a time-consuming stop, the flight would have arrived 10 minutes early? How much of this story could possibly be true?

That’s hard to say, but by now it’s traveled through multiple mouthpieces, likely amplified every single time to get to the point it’s at now. It’s become a tall tale, and Peter ran with it here. (I asked him multiple times for a copy of the original story he wrote, but he was unable to provide one.)

In the end, people simply like to latch on to stories that warm the cockles, and this is certainly one of them. But as time passes, these stories aren’t necessarily closely tied to reality. Should stories like this become reality more often? I doubt it’s even possible, but certainly things like holding a plane for 12 minutes should happen from time to time. Oh wait, it already does happen all the time.

People at Southwest and other airlines decide to hold flights day in and day out for one reason or another. I don’t want to take anything away from the captain at Southwest who made the decision to hold the flight. That was a great thing to do, but a delayed connection, a late customer running through security; these are all things that happen on a daily basis and airline employees rarely get credit for it. I guess the right combination of a heartbreaking story, a great quote, and some media coverage can create a story (real or not) that lasts forever.

Update: Thanks to reader FBKSan who found the original article from Peter Greenberg in 1990! As I responded in the comments, there were a ton of inconsistencies:

  • The 8 year old daughter turned into an 11 year old son
  • The flight was from Kansas City to Minneapolis, not from Minneapolis to Chicago
  • He went from working with dispatchers and air traffic control to actually asking ATC for permission
  • Instead of arriving 10 minutes early at the destination, the flight arrived 17 minutes late
  • When I emailed Peter asking to see his original story, he mentioned that the FAA named this guy the Captain of the Year, an award that I don’t believe exists. (Anyone?) From the looks of this story, it seems like Peter was the one who awarded the guy pilot of the year!
  • I also don’t understand what the heck he’s talking about holding the airplane at 19,000 feet to avoid excess pressurization. Huh?

Thanks FBKSan!

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16 Comments on "How Airline Stories Become Tall Tales"

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Mark Lenahan
Guest

We should also consider that the fuel cost of that landing and take off (not to mention you’d have to pay RST) would cost way more than the taxi. Nice post, you are like a snopes.com for airline related tall stories, and that is intended as a compliment.

David SF eastbay
Member
If it was the 1930’s or 40’s (maybe even early 50’s) I would say the tale was true, but not today. That’s like a person couldn’t get on a sold out flight LAX to SJC and gets on a OAK flight instead. A pilot isn’t going to stop in SJC to drop them off before heading up the ‘freeway’ to OAK for any reason. But on the flip side look how many tales blow up into a negative view point. The flight arrives 10 minutes late and by the time one passenger relates the tale from friend to friend, they… Read more »
FRANK
Guest
I have one for ya. Hurricane Katrina. We delayed our flight for 20 minutes for connecting passengers who were fleeing Hurricane Katrina. The Capt made the announcement. Within seconds, a call bell went off. I went to investigate. It was a famous WEATHER MAN from Television, who does the morning show. He threw a BIG FIT that we were waiting, yelled that it was “outrageous”!! I was dumbfounded, here, we have a television weatherman who reports weather on a weekly basis and SHOULD HAVE some sympathy towards these people, but didnt. He walked off the airline fuming. I laughed after… Read more »
Bag Guy
Guest

Many years ago as I recall, Peter Greenberg had a Travel Blog on AOL. The problem was, so many Airline Employees were also on there that he was regularly ridiculed for stories and comments just like this. Not too long after that, I noticed he moved to TV, where no one could respond to his comments.

FBKSan
Member

Is this the original story? Sure sounds like it (from 1989):
http://articles.latimes.com/1990-01-21/travel/tr-535_1_american-airlines

Sanjeev M
Guest

Why do the nonstops continue between MSP and Rochester, MN? It’s only 80 miles on the ground. Maybe winter weather is an issue. IBM has a big office in Rochester, but couldn’t they just run a bus to MSP?

The bus is far more efficient (and cheaper) than a CRJ. And honestly, the time savings is minimal. Usually when MSP is weather-delayed they send planes to Rochester and bus people up to MSP anyway, so the buses are there.

Kyle
Guest

Sanjeev, there is one thing in RST that’s kind of a big deal…the Mayo Clinic. It’s one of the most well renown hospitals in the world.

tharanga
Guest

You know, for the casual observer, the details that got mangled in memory are inconsequential to the heart-warmingness of the story. And really, for any observer, an unscheduled stop for something like that (as opposed to a true unexpected medical diversion) really is remarkable, assuming it happened.

Stephen Dutton
Guest

The story doesn’t work and why, fuel, for an aircraft to go down and drop off a passenger and get back up to a flight level means heaving all that weight back up again and the cost in doing that is fuel, lots of it, unless it is a serious medical emergency, weather or 9/11 event, no dispatcher worth his job would okay such a diversion, the cost is horrendous…file under “nice story” but untrue

Isaac
Guest

Of course, it doesn’t make sense from a fuel cost standpoint — this is obvious. However, sometimes the power of charm will influence an illogical decision. I agree with David in that this could have occurred in the 1950’s, or prior.

I wonder what other wild stories occurred in the early days of commercial air travel?

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