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The holiday spirit — at the airport

Are you dreading those crowded skies this holiday season? Feeling grumpy already? Flight attendant and travel columnist James Wysong has a proposal to make your holiday spirit take wing.
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Last year during the holiday season, I sat in the airport waiting for my flight and watched the people go about their hurried business. Many were preoccupied with their tasks at hand: rushing to their connecting flights, holding loud cell phone conversations, or waiting impatiently in long lines for food or coffee. It all felt a bit cold and impersonal. I started to wonder if as a society we had lost the human touch.

It was then that I spied an amazing sight that changed my holiday perspective. I saw a businessman hurrying through the terminal with a cell phone in one ear and typing on his BlackBerry at the same time, seemingly oblivious to the world around him. I sighed as he passed an elderly woman struggling with her luggage. But then he did a double take, quickly ended his phone conversation, and turned around. Not only did he offer to help the woman with her bags, he carried them through the terminal to her connecting gate. It renewed my faith in human kindness.

That small gesture inspired me to try to be a better person — at least for the holiday season. I decided right then that I would attempt one daily act of out-of-the-ordinary kindness. Maybe I could help someone have a better season, or maybe set an example to someone else the way that businessman inspired me.

Here are some of the episodes where I tried to be of help to others:

1. A middle-aged woman in the airport terminal started to weep uncontrollably. A natural instinct for most people is to avoid such scenes and scurry by, but I swallowed my hesitation and asked if I could help. She embraced me tightly in a hug and continued to weep for about 10 minutes. When she had calmed down a bit, she explained that her mother had died and though this had happened several days earlier and she was on her way to the funeral, it had only then sunk in. The woman thanked me for my concern and apologized for the scene and the mascara on my uniform.

2. An elderly Russian couple were flying to the United States for the very first time. They spoke no English except for the phrase "Amuerhica is grayte," but they had a note containing the address and phone number of their destination. When the flight was over, they smiled and looked at me with that "Now what?" expression, and disappeared into the customs and immigration hall. I had a chance at getting home before my 1-year-old son went to bed, so I was in a hurry. As I scurried through the crew line, I noticed my Russian couple had been held up in line for incomplete forms and there seemed to be no translator available. After close to 20 years on the job, a reduced salary and a confiscated pension, my first impulse was to turn a blind eye and head for home. Instead I stayed behind, helped them with their forms, and took them to the people they were meeting.

3. On one of my flights, an elderly man on his way to see his grandchildren left his bag of gifts in the overhead compartment. I remembered him because he had mentioned that this was the first time he was traveling alone, as his wife had recently passed. I grabbed his bag and hurried into the terminal to see if I could catch up with him. If you have ever been to O'Hare airport, you know that trying to find someone in the busy concourse is a daunting task. Normal procedure is to leave forgotten items with the gate agent, but odds had it that the gifts would not get to the man before his connecting flight. I knew what flight he was catching, but it was three terminals away and my own flight was in the other direction. I felt like Santa Claus as I ran through the airport with the bag full of gifts. In the end I got them to the gentleman, who had only just realized his loss.

4. This one was really tough. I was flying home and was guaranteed to get the last seat on a flight the night before my first Thanksgiving feast with my wife and 10-month-old son. I had just received my seat assignment when a fellow flight attendant approached me in tears, saying that if she didn't get on this flight to reach her work assignment, she would surely be fired. It took a long thought to decide to relinquish my seat for a stranger, but eventually I did, and I spent the night in the terminal. I did make it home the following day.

I had a warm feeling in my heart that holiday season. In some ways, I felt like I had become a better person. That December, my wife, who is a pilot, was assigned a four-day trip over Christmas and I, having done everything to avoid flying over the holiday, was assigned a three-day trip both before and after hers. So, we wouldn't be seeing each other for 10 days over Christmas. We were disappointed, but we knew that this was all a part of working for the airlines. Then, lo and behold, a miracle happened: My wife's flight was canceled, and another flight attendant took one of my trips — quite unusual for that time of year. My wife and I ended up having eight full days together on our son's very first Christmas. I like to think of it as some kind of good holiday karma making its way back to me.

How about extending some extraordinary kindnesses to your fellow travelers this holiday season? Do something nice that you wouldn't normally do — it could be anything from a simple smile or common courtesy to going out of your way for a stranger. Kindness warms the heart and enriches our existence on this planet. Plus, it does double duty: It makes you feel good and gladdens someone else's day. After all, isn't that what the holiday spirit is really all about?

James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, please visit or .