Sometimes we can touch the lives of others in unexpected ways. One United flight attendant did exactly that without ever opening her mouth.
For John Maucere, flying can often be a pain. The seasoned Hollywood actor and comedian is deaf. He’s also a MillionMiler flyer on United and frequently on the road. Frustrations occur not just on airlines but in many public places and include patronizing behavior, impatience, and a general lack of empathy from others. Maucere certainly needs no sympathy…he has accomplished more than most in his life and is a powerful testament to never letting a physical impediment hold you back. And yet sometimes it is simply nice to have someone to easily communicate with.
Communication tends to be difficult up in the air, but one flight attendant, Courtney Kilgore, made the whole flying experience better. Below, Maucere shares the story of his London to Los Angeles flight on United Airlines, in which Kilgore happened to be working.
I sat down with Maucere and Kilgore last night at Flappers Comedy Club in Burbank, CA (where Maucere was performing) and chatted about the prophetic onboard encounter.
It all started when Kilgore noticed a sign language sticker on John’s laptop. She approached him and said hello. He said signed back her to and was shocked by the conversation that ensued. “Whatever you need, let me know!” promised Kilgore. A friendship was formed. Maucere was looked after during the flight. Not so much in a way that was better than everyone else, but finally in a way that was equal to what others received.
I asked Kilgore why she learned sign language. Did she have deaf friends or relatives? Nope. Sensing passenger need, the five-year FA taught herself via YouTube. It merits mentioning here that proficiency in American Sign Language does not make a flight attendant “language qualified” (and therefore eligible for extra pay). This was done out of altruism.
Maucere helped me to understand how it can be so frustrating to fly via an anecdote. When booking, if he checks off the “disability” or “needs extra assistance” box, he is often treated as a sick patient. Not so much in the USA, but in some countries he has been forced into a wheelchair and made to wait in a roped off section of the gate area (rather than, say, the lounge). Often, when flight attendants discover that he is deaf, they yell out or make PA announcements asking if other passengers can translate sign language. This is rarely necessary (Maucere can point to items on the menu and write after all) and draws unwanted attention to him.
What can airlines do? Hire more flight attendants like Kilgore. Encourage FAs to study ASL. Offer incentives to do it. Kilgore mentioned that a group of five United FAs are studying ASL together. It’s a great testimony to rising above and beyond the call of duty.
I remember my trip to Moscow in 2007 was the most difficult trip of my life. No one spoke any English or German…not at the airport, not on the streets, not in the Metros, and not in restaurants. Out of desperation, I even went into McDonalds and they did not even have a picture menu. #total_fail
Oh what a relief it was to turn up at my guesthouse and find the owner, who greeted me in English.
Language is a bond that unites. For some, that language is a non-spoken language. What a joy it was for Kilgore and Maucere to connect in the most unexpected of places.
What I’m finding is that there are so many good stories right under our noses. In a world of bad news, these stories need to be told. I’ll have another one tomorrow and another one on Saturday.
Kilgore taught me two signs. One is “I love you” and the other is “airplane”. The sign for “I love you” is farily well-known:
But the sign for airplane or to fly? Just rotate “I love you” 90º and flip your hand.
I love it!