Editor’s note: Chris Sweigart is a member of Delta’s Corporate Communications team who flew alongside Delta crews making the journey from Ramstein Air Base to the U.S. to chronicle the journey of evacuees from Afghanistan. Below is his first-person account from one of the flights.
When “Nick” (Delta is using an alias to protect the evacuee’s identity) boarded Delta’s A350-900 at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, he arrived ready to serve the flight crew and his countrymen: The medical professional was prepared to jump in and help with translations or medical assistance if needed during the journey.
Nick was among about 300 passengers aboard the Delta flight operating in support of the U.S. government’s activation of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet. The flight brought people from Ramstein to Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C. — a connection to the U.S. for those escaping a precarious situation in Afghanistan.
A few times throughout the flight, the crew calls on Nick to translate; at one point, he relays instructions to a first-time flier learning how to pop her ears. But other than that, he keeps politely to himself as he sits next to me.
Until I strike up a conversation.
Nick, in his mid-20s, evacuated from Afghanistan about two weeks ago. Traveling with some of his extended family, he has been on a journey to reunite with his parents and brothers already living in the United States.
Over the course of those two weeks, he has been flown on military planes from Afghanistan to Qatar, then on to Germany. He’s slept on floors, in tents, in the heat and the cold.
He opens his backpack to reveal a trove of documents. If you ever think about the one thing you’d grab if you had to get out fast, this file of documents is it for Nick. Degrees, certificates, fitness achievements, transcripts — his whole life on paper.
He told me about what it was like in the Afghan capital of Kabul in the weeks leading up to his escape, as crime overran the city and the Taliban took control.
One story, 300 experiences
As the flight attendants and I chat in the rear galley, we recount the same story from 300 perspectives. Mothers of adorable newborn babies. Reverent grandchildren helping their grandparents. Dozens of smiling small children. Young couples on the cusp of starting a family. Many with familial connections in America. Some starting completely new.
The flight attendants – Carol Collins, Mary Jo Howard, Eva Yee-Nappi, Lorie Robison, Gina Bruckner, Jennifer Andrews, Patricia Nikituk, Jennifer Pettipas-Buescher, Teresa Houck and Jane Lloyd – pick up these stories while in constant motion through the cabin. They serve meals and refreshments, but more than that, they serve kindness and empathy.
Wings of connection
Between her normal rounds, Flight Attendant Lorie Robison circulates through the cabin, delivering small toys, coloring books and crayons to the young passengers, bringing a smile to the faces of the children and their appreciative parents. Lorie herself is moved to tears after connecting with several of the people in her care.
Late in the flight, Lorie makes one final round through the cabin. In her hand now, a bag of Delta Air Lines wings. The wings are a longstanding tradition. Pinned over the heart of passengers — a symbol of a lasting connection between passenger, crew and airline.
As Lorie extends a pair of wings to Nick, his surprise and gratitude illuminate his face. He reveals that this is his first flight on a commercial airline. Nick proudly wears the emblem on the chest of his jacket.
“I will put this on my wall,” Nick says, reverently holding the wings aloft, foreshadowing his vision for his new home in America, the wings a lasting reminder of his journey.
Once the flight landed at Dulles, Nick and his fellow passengers wait patiently on the ground for processing by U.S. immigration authorities.
Dozens of pizzas are delivered to the plane, a comforting nourishment for all those on board. Remarkably, the passengers remain calm and patient, even after what has now been weeks of difficult travel.
As they wait, many call friends and relatives in the U.S., letting them know the end of their journey was approaching. Delta’s flight attendants and crew would offer their personal phones for those passengers needing a little help making a connection.
Nick, video calling with family and friends in America, turns his phone toward nearby Flight Attendants and me, proudly introducing us to his smiling father, brother and other relatives.
When the plane’s doors finally open, the entire crew stood by to offer well wishes to each passenger as they stepped off. In return, they receive a simple but overwhelming, heartfelt appreciation. For people who made the journey with not much more than what they could carry — a smile and a “thank you” was all they could offer to those that had cared for them over the past several hours.
None of us know if our paths will ever cross again. But as every passenger steps through the jet’s door, they walk forward with their hopes and a lasting connection.