Stories of inflight interactions between flight attendants and passengers usually go viral because someone did something, well, not nice. This is not one of those.
JacqueRae Hill, from Dallas, Texas, has been a flight attendant with Southwest Airlines for 14 years. When the protests turned violent the night of May 29, she was overwhelmed.
“When I woke up on Friday morning, I went on social media, and that did not help the situation,” Hill said in an interview with CNN.
She drove to Dallas Love Field for a flight to Panama City on Friday, praying for some ray of hope or understanding. “It’s so difficult with everything going on … You want to be informed, you want to know. But then at the same time, my job as a service person is to provide somebody with happiness.”
She said she prayed on her way in, “God, please help me get to work today.”
The flight started boarding, and Hill performed her usual safety checks, greeting passengers with a hello and a smile that her eyes had to deliver, because she was wearing a mask. “I feel stupid, I can’t stop smiling, even though you can’t see it.”
Books are magic
Then she noticed one of the final passengers to board was carrying the book “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” by Robin DiAngelo.
“I knew the book for a while. Michael Eric Dyson wrote the foreword. It’s been on my list, but I just haven’t gotten it yet,” Sullivan said.
After she finished service, she moved toward the back of the plane, where the man who was reading the book was seated, alone, next to a window, typing on his phone.
“I plopped down and said, ‘Hey, how are you? So that book, how is it?’”
The two started conversing about the book. Sullivan recalls the man, who was White, saying, “It’s our fault. We have to start these conversations.”
As the man spoke these words, Sullivan became overwhelmed with emotion and began crying. “I know he didn’t know what to do. I know I startled him. I was embarrassed. I didn’t expect that. It was just a genuine moment for me, and we talked for 10 minutes.”
The big reveal
She thanked the man profusely for the incredible conversation, for his interest and for caring, weighed hugging him (she did). He asked her name, and she introduced herself. Then the man told her his name. “I’m Doug Parker, the CEO of American.”
Parker scribbled a note to Sullivan before deplaning, expressing his gratitude and pleasure at having met and spoken with her.
“I was thankful if he was a random person that had no influence. But because of his position in life, the fact that he’s reading that book. He does not have to educate himself. And the fact that he is, I just think that speaks volumes as to the work we all have to do in trying to bring ourselves together.”
Sullivan waited a day before posting about her experience on Facebook. “With all those emotions, I wanted to process it fully. I wanted to make sure how I wrote it was exactly how I was feeling.”
As the positive responses came flooding in, she realized that she had touched a nerve. “I didn’t know it would be this big. The response has been overwhelming. I have cried every day. Happy tears.”
Sullivan’s mother Patti, as an American Airlines employee, Anderson contacted Doug Parker to express her gratitude for the moment he shared with her daughter on the flight – and for the hug.
Parker replied to Patti Anderson, “[JacqueRae] certainly left an impression on me. Reading a book is one thing – spending time with a kind, strong, young Black woman who is hurting and trying to learn from others is another thing altogether.”
Parker finished his reply by thanking Anderson for thanking him, “I was the one who was blessed by that conversation.”
An enduring friendship
Parker wrote a note to his officers at American Airlines over the weekend, which was later shared wider. In it he recounted the experience of meeting Hill and hearing from Anderson.
“Before we deplaned, I had a wonderful email from her mother, Patti, thanking me for comforting her daughter. I had done nothing, of course. JacqueRae was the brave one. I was sitting comfortably in the back sending you guys emails without thinking twice about what this young woman — and others like her — were going through. She was a gift to me.”
Southwest’s Chairman and CEO, Gary Kelly, posted the following on Twitter on June 1:
“It’s important for us to listen to one another to achieve understanding. This moment between Doug and one of our Flight Attendants is a beautiful example of that. Though we wear different logos, Doug and I have a duty to be the example for our People.”
On Tuesday, Southwest Airlines spokeswoman Brandy King wrote, “Tens of thousands of times every day, our People connect with Southwest Customers to weave across the sky a diverse patchwork of perspectives, life experiences, and understanding. We were touched by the dimension of a true connection between one of our amazing Southwest Flight Attendants JacqueRae and Southwest’s friend Doug Parker who leads another great, Texas-based airline. We thank Doug for the business, and for celebrating one of the many real connections that makes the more than 60,000 People of Southwest so special.”
On Instagram this week, Parker thanked the Sullivans for including him and his family in their special day and reflected on their year-long friendship. “She started a courageous conversation with me about race in America and it’s one I’ll never forget,” he wrote.