A story that made a big impact this week on social media and elsewhere, that involves a human heart left in an airplane cargo hold and a flight rerouted to deliver it, is a lesson that perceptions can be more important than reality. The story about the misdirected heart has evolved a bit, and it is interesting (and a bit sad) to note the changing attitudes based on the updated facts.

This past weekend, a Southwest Airlines flight bound from Sacramento to Seattle had a somewhat specialized shipment within its cargo hold. A human heart was being transferred to a medical processing company in Washington. Apparently, the heart did not make it off the plane in Seattle, and it was soon discovered that it was winging its way to Dallas on the next leg of the aircrafts flight. When the error was discovered, Southwest, which ironically uses a heart in its logo and actually paints them on the underbelly of their aircraft, immediately re-routed the flight back to Seattle. It delivered the heart within its window of viability but delayed their passengers about 5 hours in total. 

What is interesting to me is the changing perception of the passengers involved as more became known about the heart. In early stories passengers believed that they were returning a heart to a waiting transplant recipient; that a human life immediately hung in the balance. They were described as surprised, but appreciative of the reasons the plane had to turn around midflight. In later stories, after they became aware that the heart was actually intended for a medical processing facility to harvest valves for future needs, they seemed to become much less forgiving. When the original narrative was that someone was on the table waiting for it, one passenger, a doctor, was quoted in an article saying everyone on board “was happy to save a life.” However, when the destination was later revealed to be the processing center, some passengers apparently “questioned why their plane didn’t continue on to Dallas.” The same doctor, who did not get home until the following morning due to the delay, was quoted as saying “As it turns out, there was nothing critical about the shipment. The shipment may as well have been a suitcase.” 

Ouch. That’s some bedside manner he has.

The fact that a human life did not immediately hang in the balance might impact your opinion, but I would point out that a family somewhere, who lost a loved one and donated that heart in the hopes of helping others, would not consider that organ “no different than a suitcase.” Those harvested valves will eventually help improve or even save someone’s life, but the perception of some passengers apparently shifted dramatically when the facts were known. A human heart only has a small window of viability when outside the body, and a continuation to Dallas would’ve meant the trash bin for that organ. Wasting that heart would have been devastating to the family that provided it, yet to some it would have been the preferred option if it meant they weren’t delayed a few hours.

Ironically heartless, if you ask me.

The shift in attitude created by the changing perceptions of the situation can be a lesson for the workers’ compensation industry. The need for clear, concise and open communication is essential if we are to avoid creating false narratives and impressions. This is particularly challenging when doing the right thing turns out not to be the popular thing, and people inconvenienced in the process are more concerned with their own personal priorities.

I’ve made it very clear previously that Southwest Airlines is “The Official Airline of Bob,” in that they are the airline I choose to fly on a regular basis – almost without exception. I do not just enjoy what I perceive to be superior customer service from them; I have long been an admirer of their founder, Herb Kelleher and the culture he created at the airline. The scrappy, underdog attitude and phenomenal results they have achieved despite tremendous early challenges (thank you, Jim Wright) are a testament to their commitment to serving their customers to the best of their ability. Still, they are human, and mistakes will be made. 

Leaving a human heart in cargo was definitely one of those mistakes. Inconveniencing passengers in order to correct that mistake was not.

As a person approaching one million points in his Rapid Rewards account, I’ve had my fair share of delays and travel challenges over the years. Only a couple times have I been truly disappointed in the way something was handled at Southwest, and they have made it right by me both times. Would I be unhappy if I was delayed a night due to this mistake? Yep. Would I have expected the airline to scrap a human heart in order to avoid inconveniencing me a few hours? No way.

Turns out you can leave your heart in San Francisco or Southwest’s cargo. Either way it will eventually find its way to where it is supposed to be. A person or persons may someday end up with heart valves that are better traveled then they are. It is ultimately a happy ending, despite the perceptions (and misperceptions) of a few who were temporarily affected. 

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