A True Christmas Miracle Story

“All I could do was be hopeful in the face of impossibility and rejection that my aunt and cousin would be able to be transferred to Korea Airlines……..”

My concern of being the driver to the airport is none besides direction.  If you have been to SF airport, you have a pretty good idea of how the campus is like, a mini-village-like with many criss-cross roads and with two spacious, disconnected garages that could call for a 20 min or more browse in order to reach the terminal. It could be worse when you are to catch a flight, as if check-in wasn’t already enough a time problem.  Fortunately for me as a first-timer driver to see my aunt and cousin off, it didn’t take me long before I found my way through this maze.

“What a relief!” I sighed. It was merely around 6:30am when we stepped foot inside the terminal. Considering the flight left at 9:30am, we were among early birds for this trip.  After scanning the flight information printed from our email and matching it with that of the flight display board, the rest was a matter of time before they got on their flight and I could head back for some nap before work. “Aisle 9 Korea Airlines from SFO to Washington, time 9:45am”, said the display. We headed over to only find out that the aisle wouldn’t be open till 8am. Without a complaint, we waited, waited, and waited.

We queued up a little before 8am. By the time we got to the clerk, it was already 8: 15am or so. “Plenty of time for the security checkpoint.” Then there appeared a puzzling look on the clerk’s face when she searched for their names. It seemed to be hinting a common (but unusual to us) case for a passenger check-in. I then was told that Korea Airlines was not the flight my aunt and cousin were to be on. “Sir, this is operated by Alaska Airlines at Aisle 12.”

A state of shock grappled all three of us. I prayed as we were scurrying across the hall that there be nothing else in between them and their flight. On the contrary, we then were presented with a flood of passengers at the Alaska Airlines aisle. “Let’s see if we can still make it” was all I could say to keep my aunt positive throughout the dreadful wait. It turned out that we weren’t the only group to have to be redirected to Alaska Airlines. This was reassured by the wistful look on the family who was right behind us, the man crying out to the clerks: “what the hell! Aren’t you guys doing anything? I have a connecting flight”, another guy caring less about what others were hearing about his phone conversation, and many more inaudible families’ conversations.  And though this gave us some momentary peace knowing that the agency would do something since it was not a small scale disorder, our hope waned as the clock was ticking by. After a number of attempts of running back and forth to explain our case to ticket clerks of both airlines, we were still trapped in the line as our flight was slipping right in front of our eyes. Finally, came the announcement that ended everything for good: “That’s it for 9:45am Washington bound flight check in!”

I felt terrible, probably more terrible than the actual passenger–my aunt–did. The explanation is simple. I failed to get a woman and her kid on their flight! But I still wanted to see if there was anything that could be done for us as it was not entirely our fault; we weren’t busting our butts to get to airport because we woke up late and got held up by the traffic. We were genuinely misguided by the information printed from the email and by the complexity /politic of flight operation. On top of that, given that the incident was prolific, there should have been a group of back-up summoned from either Korea Air or Alaska Air to handle these cases.

“And from here on marks the reason why I think this event is worth writing about”

We were finally at the front of the line and were called. The clerk who greeted us was a middle aged woman of Philippino nationality. She was single (we later learned) but was brimmed with motherly understanding. On the exterior, she seemed tough and uneasy-going. I remember the first few minutes we spent at the counter I tried to limit what to say to her. She sported a mid-parted, neck-length bob. And her hair was black. The overall facial image of this clerk was complemented with a pair of reading glasses and accentuated by a mole not far away from her upper lip. “A stern clerk we have here,” I thought to myself. But deep down, I still hoped our prayers would be answered by her–Sue.

I explained to Sue why we had missed our 9:45am flight and hoped to earn her understanding more by telling her that we weren’t the only group to encounter this. She then said everyone’s case had become individualized as a result of varying final destinations. Now the stakes were raised. Sue then typed away at her keyboard to schedule an alternative flight for my aunt and cousin, but nothing came up that would allow for a complete transfer of schedule. Sue tried every possible way she could, transferring us to a different airline; re-routing our first domestic flight to catch the second continuing, international flight; breaking up the first and second flights by one day. But none of these combinations yielded any solutions. In the meantime, Sue also received a phone complaint from a customer which obliged her to step aside, explain to the passenger, and resolve the case.  We were unattended to briefly.

It had already been over half an hour since we were with Sue. Time was ticking way, hope was slipping by, but we still moved nowhere. The only thing for which I still felt grateful as for the moment was that Sue didn’t quit on or neglect us. My ten year old cousin, by this time, had also conceived the gravity we were in. However, I am still thankful that it didn’t bother him as much as it did us adults. He would ask me about the status of our trip every now and then. And I would tell him as honest, as optimistic, and as cheerful as I could tell his mom, “We’ll see.” He then muttered with his hand tugging at my jacket: “it would be a Christmas miracle if we make the flight.” I nodded in agreement but still refused to acknowledge it inwardly.

Sue returned after resolving her side complaint. By what she said next after a quick typing at her keyboard, I assumed that she was ready to give in and give up on us. “Now, all you can do is call the ticket agency from whom you bought your tickets and see if they can make any arrangement for you.” I knew that if we had said: “yes, thank you ma’m” and walked away, there would have been no chance in heaven that anyone would open his/her mind to try to gauge our situation. Instead, “Since you understand our disposition, would you mind representing us and make the call for us?” was what I went with. As much as she was ready to give up, Sue granted our request. She then dialed the ticket reservation center and spoke to the associate in charge. Two or three minutes into the conversation, Sue handed me the receiver telling me that the associate would like to speak to me. As soon as I heard the word “hi” from the other side, I knew that this gentle, calm voice was willing to accept my plea. She then took the time to listen to what I had to explain and I could also feel her empathy. Nonetheless, the readiness to reject my plea was imminent, but a slight hesitation to ditch us completely also persisted. In the end, she gave us the benefit of the doubt and let the higher authority decide our case. Now, I was connected to her supervisor. I knew I would stand no chance in convincing this person even though he had accepted my plea and listened to his associate’s explanation. Feeling desperate to make it work, I asked Sue to speak on our behalf; with her authority, she would have more promise at delivering this case to the Ticket Reservation Manager. Sue got back on the line.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. This woman, whom we had been bothering for the past hour and whom had no connection with us whatsoever, crept into the verge of tears while explaining to the Ticket Reservation Manager; I was no longer the only one begging. At that point, even though nothing would have worked out, I would have still been very pleased with the dedication we had received. Shortly after her phone conversation, Sue told us that she was instructed to call Korea Airlines aisle and work it out with it directly for two seats for my aunt and cousin. She made the call, over and over.  Disappointedly, nobody picked up. I glanced over the aisle and from what I saw, they should have been open for a call. Determined to yield an answer out of this, Sue dropped everything at hand, walked over to the other side of the counter, and led us to Korea Airlines Aisle. Suddenly, a glimpse of hope emerged and we humbly felt the privilege that Sue had enshrouded us as we were striding the terminal.

We reached our final obstacle. I pointed out to Sue who I had already spoken to in this aisle earlier, the female clerk and the supervisor in charge of today’s flight. Sue quickly assessed if the Manager of Korea Airlines was on site by asking one of its porters in Tatalog. Without wasting a minute, she then approached the Manager. He was a stout, light-in-complexion, 40 or 50 year old Korean American. By his expression, he was an easy-going and compassionate person. Furthermore, his soft-spoken voice and welcoming manners only boosted our hope even more. Sue stepped aside with the man a number of times, and the man had to walk back and forth liaisoning on both his group’s behalf and our behalf. Even though the Manager seemed to give us an Okay, his efforts were still impeded by his colleagues especially the supervisor in charge of today’s flight. When the Manager finished talking with Sue and was a few feet away from me, I couldn’t help but to reach out and grabbed and shook his hand, “we really need your help, sir!” I then could only remain hopeful after feeling his unresponding, squishy handshake.

Sue then recapitulated her discussion with the Manager to us. First, he had to make sure if there would be any room on the flight and if the cook had prepared more than enough meals in order to accommodate two additional passengers. The latter was a check, but our fate still lied in whether there would be any openings on the plane. We were instructed to waitlist. And that clarified why there was a couple standing dormant to the side instead of checking in their baggage. We lined up right behind them. Hopeful was all I could be.

It was during this time that I was able to learn more about Sue, for instance, her aforementioned single status and her employment with Alaska Airlines. I also humbly thanked her for doing so much and sticking her neck out for us. She went way beyond her duty. I don’t know how many other passengers she had neglected that day by helping us. I also do hope that she did not get in any trouble for abandoning her post and for paying the difference using her company’s account to secure the seats for my aunt and cousin. All I knew then was that her kind acts couldn’t escape my desire to learn why she did what she did. And in a very simple line, “if you put yourself in that person’s shoe, you would feel it.” She answered. Things seemed to be panning out well. Finally, Sue returned again and confirmed our flight for us. Before she could escape physically this time, I grabbed hold of her hands and thanked her for the last time. “How could we repay you?” I asked. Again, the middle-aged woman didn’t make it complicated for us to make meaning of her message. “Just be good to each other.” With that, our good Samaritan left the scene.

The new flight my relatives were to board took off at 11:45am.  It was now already 11 o’clock. The clerks were also finishing last things they had at the encounter while last minute arrivers unloading their baggage onto the scale.  A lady holding her baby in one arm and another pushing her cart stacked with luggage well above her over 5 ft stature hoped that her husband would also make it to her on time; and he did show up shortly after. By this time, the couple ahead of us had already left for the security check point. The entire aisle was left with just us and a few clerks. The supervisor in charge of today’s flight still seemed piqued because his Manager had ruled over his decision. Nonetheless, he still issued us two tickets and a red tag that would get us to the front of the line at security checkpoint.  Despites little feelings here and there, we were still very grateful for everybody’s help. We thus accepted our tickets and attached our gratitude in our handshakes with the remaining personnel of Korea Airlines. Time was closing in on us. And just like that, I couldn’t even bid my relatives proper goodbye. I stood behind the divider and kept my eyes peeled on the other side of the glass door in case they still couldn’t make Gate A6. But they never returned and so I took care of one last thing on my agenda before I left the terminal.

The last thing I had to get was a pack of chocolates. I asked the sales clerk for a pen, paper, and tape. The finished note was attached to the chocolate and dropped off at Aisle 12, Alaska Airlines,
for Sue. Among many things that I wrote to thank Sue, I’d like my readers and especially my cousin who just got on his flight to know that—I witnessed a Christmas miracle that day.