Most frequent travelers these days, especially those without elite status, have given up on customer service at the airport.

But every once in a while there are reminders of the good old days, when they really were the Friendly Skies. This is a rare post about a nice story. It is a story where a United Airlines gate agent saved a young woman’s weekend, and probably saved her airline having to pay out a travel voucher as well.

In this case, my client wanted the best possible fare for a weekend trip to see her boyfriend. I ended up booking her a Friday afternoon flight from San Francisco to New York’s JFK Airport with a relatively tight connection (45 minutes) in Los Angeles. The most forward seat available was in row 32.

A nonstop would have been preferable, but the connection had a much lower price. So, she decided to risk it.

When booking the flights, I advised her to take just carry-on luggage and to speak up if there looked to be any delay in San Francisco. I figured that United would probably agree to put her on an available nonstop if they knew she would misconnect. I also advised her to check with the gate agent, since they would have the most up-to-date information.

As it turned out, while the San Francisco to Los Angeles plane appeared to be on time, United had canceled another San Francisco to Los Angeles flight earlier in the day; all remaining flights were full, with long standby lists.

The traveler got to the airport early, and asked the gate agent if the flight looked like it was on time. She told me she also asked nicely if, since she had a close connection, there might be a chance of moving to a more forward seat since she really wanted to make it to New York that night.

United’s gate agent apparently knew about the problems with the canceled flight, as she quickly confirmed that the woman had no need to go to Los Angeles and immediately started clicking keys.

A minute or two later, she asked the traveler, “Can you run?” Well, sure. The agent explained there was a seat left on a nonstop leaving in less than 15 minutes. If my young client could get to a gate some distance away in a hurry (Gate 72 to 80, for those who know SFO), she could get on the nonstop and not have to worry about her LA connection.

My client took off running, and made it quickly to the other gate, where an agent was actually waving to her. She was the last person on the plane, which had a few empty seats. The flight attendant closed the door behind her. (It was such a last minute effort that I first learned this had happened when her boyfriend called to ask me to translate the quick text message on her new flight.)

As it turned out, this was a bigger deal than anyone thought at the time, as her original flight had a last minute cargo delay and would have misconnected in Los Angeles. Having the agent get her on the earlier flight kept her from getting stuck in Los Angeles; she landed in New York three hours ahead of schedule.

What’s striking about this case, however, is that everyone benefited: The traveler got to her destination early, her boyfriend didn’t have to drive to JFK at midnight, United Airlines got significant goodwill and freed up a San Francisco-Los Angeles seat they really needed (not to mention the hassle they would have had in trying to rebook her later with the delayed flight).

Kudos all around. In an automated world, polite humans meeting up with competent humans can still make a difference.