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Airlines sometimes bring joy, solace by going the extra mile

By Katia Hetter, CNN
June 23, 2012 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Shawn Oesterreicher popped the question to Lori Kessler on board United Airlines Flight 472
Shawn Oesterreicher popped the question to Lori Kessler on board United Airlines Flight 472
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Despite airline travel's stresses, people still find joy while traveling
  • Luckily for one passenger, some airline and airport employees are trained to save your life
  • Many airline employees go above and beyond to help passengers

Editor's note: The Traveler's Psyche is a five-week series focusing on travel scenarios that stir emotion. We've looked at the golden age of travel, air rage, frustration at the TSA, love at the airport and adoration for all things aviation.

(CNN) -- Lori Kessler clearly didn't know what was coming.

Dressed in sweats, Kessler said she hadn't put on any makeup before getting on United Airlines Flight 472 with boyfriend Shawn Oesterreicher for their July 28, 2011, trip from Los Angeles to Denver.

She mentioned to a flight attendant that they had met five years earlier on the same flight to Denver, but the significance escaped her that morning.

Kessler loved the "Glee" version of the KISS song, "Beth." Once they were airborne, Oesterreicher handed over his iPhone with a re-written recording of the song -- including a marriage proposal. While he claimed to go to the restroom, a flight attendant announced his proposal over the loudspeaker.

He returned, dropped to one knee and asked her to marry him, to champagne from the flight attendants and applause from passengers.

YouTube video: Shawn Oesterreicher's mid-flight proposal

"I personally think it's the best the proposal I've ever heard," Kessler said. "That's where we met. It would be fitting if it was on a plane."

Your relationship to airline travel might not be as loving as the soon-to-be-married couple's engagement day. Pre-boarding security is a pain. The planes are crowded. Your airline seat isn't always comfortable. And the food they serve? What food?

Five weeks ago, we launched the Traveler's Psyche, our series covering contentious issues like the TSA, airline seat size, air rage, airline food, and happier topics like travel testing your love life, love at the airport and hot spots for aviation geeks.

We've read your comments and know airline travel evokes lots of ire for many people. But even in that stressful time at the airports and in the air, life's most significant moments still happen. People get engaged, get sick, celebrate life and mourn its end.

Here are some their heartwarming tales about simple decency, love and loss and the people who took extraordinary steps beyond their job descriptions.

They were always together

Bill Lee remembers that his parents had only been separated once, for a year, while his father had served in the U.S. Navy. Clyde and Mary had celebrated their 95th birthdays together at a party in mid-December of last year, and they were expecting to celebrate their 75th anniversary June 12.

However, his mother had quit eating and didn't seem to want to live anymore, Lee said. The family had gathered at the nursing home in Phoenix in March, expecting her to pass away at any moment. His seemingly healthy father asked a nursing home caregiver for something to drink. He passed away before she returned. His wife, who was not conscious when he died, passed away about six hours later.

Valley of the Sun Mortuary and Cemetery arranged to have his parents flown from Phoenix via Delta Air Lines to their hometown of Lansing, Michigan, for the funeral and burial. Only after the flight did Lee learn from the mortuary that Delta didn't automatically take the two caskets. Airline employees weren't initially sure they could fit both caskets on the plane, but they heard the Lees' story and made room for both so they wouldn't be separated on their final journey.

Never again would the couple be apart.

"After the funeral home explained they had been married almost 75 years and didn't want to separate them now, Delta put them on the same plane," Lee said. "I am so appreciative. It was just wonderful that big corporations allow people to make decisions that are of great benefit to feelings of families like ours."

Southwest Airlines flight attendant Holly Hansen being presented with a cookie cake of appreciation.
Southwest Airlines flight attendant Holly Hansen being presented with a cookie cake of appreciation.

Lending a helping hand

After 22 years as a customer service representative at US Airways, LaDonna Lewis is seen as a problem-fixer. Once, when she forgot to turn off her work radio as she was returning home, she heard about a distressed passenger whose flight had arrived to late to make her connection and needed more diapers. Nine miles from the airport, she turned around to buy diapers and tend to the passenger. She has booked a hotel for a passenger who missed a flight, but didn't speak English and needed help in a foreign language.

"I like meeting people and I like seeing their faces when they travel, and (I enjoy) that a lot of passengers will tell you their experience," said Lewis, last year's winner of the US Airways Chairman's Award, the company's most prestigious employee award. "It encourages me to go and see that place."

Just don't tell her there isn't anything to celebrate at the airport. If she sees a good story, she'll share, like the time she saw a nun wearing a corsage to celebrate 66 years as a nun. She told the pilot and convinced him to announce it on the flight. "Everyone on the plane clapped," she said.

Life and death at the ticket counter

It was just another morning at the Fort Lauderdale airport for Southwest Airlines customer service supervisor Jose Jauregui when an agent ran into his office yelling that a passenger had collapsed at the ticket counter. Southwest trains Jauregui and other supervisors in first aid and CPR every two years, but he had never had occasion to use it until last February 13.

Jauregui grabbed a phone to call 911, jumped over the ticket counter to check his pulse. The man had no pulse and wasn't breathing, so Jauregui yelled for an employee to get the defibrillator and started compressions. It took the help of a nearby police officer, three times shocking the passenger and the arrival of paramedics to stabilize the man. The passenger, who had a triple bypass and was hospitalized for 11 days, has become Jauregui's friend.

Jauregui said the incident, which lasted about 12 minutes, changed his life.

"Everyone is somebody's son or daughter, sister or brother," said Jauregui, adding that he's grateful for the training he received. "If something like that was to happen to my family member, I would want somebody to jump in."

It's how you solve the problem

It could have been a travel nightmare for Jon and Elise VanderMeer, who were flying Delta from Atlanta to Tokyo for their first trip without their child. From Tokyo, they would be taking a 15-day cruise to Alaska.

The couple was pretty unhappy when three of their four bags didn't make the flight. Despite not having luggage for five days, Delta customer service employee Yoshiki Itahashi managed to keep their business with "the best airline service I ever experienced," wrote Jon VanderMeer, in an e-mail.

How did this Delta employee do it? "He was very concerned and acted like he truly felt bad for the situation, he worked on alternate arrangements and options for us to consider, he stayed 4 hours past his shift until (the cruise ship) offices opened and we could get better information," he wrote. "He granted us credits and return flight upgrades as Delta's apology, (and) he made sure we got to the ship using Delta's car service."

Giving thanks -- and a cookie cake

Southwest flight attendant Holly Hansen was chatting with a customer in the second row on a two-hour flight from Raleigh-Durham to Nashville when he told her he was country singer Taylor Swift's father. When she confessed she was a fan, he gave her a handful of custom guitar picks with Taylor's name and image on them. (Taylor Swift's management team confirmed he was on the flight.)

On her next flight from Nashville to Phoenix, Hansen pegged customer Rowland Folensbee and his girlfriend for Taylor Swift fans, and gave them a few of the guitar picks. While his girlfriend slept, Folensbee decided to pay it forward mid-flight by posting a challenge on the Southwest Airlines Facebook page.

"I want y'all to know that our flight attendant Holly is perhaps one of the most remarkably kind and helpful people my girlfriend and I have ever met," he wrote. "If you can meet us at the gate with something remarkable for this remarkable woman (a promotion, a raise, a Chipotle burrito, anything), I will sign a document pledging to only fly Southwest from here on out (unless you do not fly where I need to go). Of course, I request a 'key man clause' in this agreement stipulating the contract terminates if Holly ever leaves."

When airline marketing department alerted the Phoenix staff to the challenge, the employees stepped up. They met the flight with "Miss America" style sash for Holly and had a bakery make a special chocolate chip cookie that read, "Holly, most remarkably kind flight attendant." And of course, the pledge for Folensbee to sign.

"I was impressed that a young man would think about saying thank you," said Hansen, who loved his post when he showed it to her. (But she didn't think about what might happen next.)

"We open the (airplane) door and there's this huge entourage of people, all the Phoenix-based supervisors and flight attendants with this huge cookie cake," said Hansen. "Then they pulled out this huge contract. We're taking pictures and all eating cookie cake. It was so adorable how it even happened."

No need to invoke the clause. Hansen is still happily working for Southwest Airlines.

In an era of strict security rules and packed planes, do you have any happy travel moments to share? Tell us in the comments section below.

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