We asked airline gate agents to tell us about their jobs—what they love about it, what they hate about it, and whether, in fact, you have a better chance of sitting in first class if you're dressed well. We learned a lot and hope you will too.
Q: What are you typing on your computer so ferociously when I ask to change my seat?
"Our computer systems are so archaic that everything we do requires a cumbersome series of codes. It isn't just a point and click system. Even a seat change is a long, drawn out process."
Q: Why can’t you hold the plane for late connecting passengers?
"It's not really up to us. We have to get the flight out on time. If it's more than 15 minutes late, we're held accountable unless there is a weather or mechanical delay. Our computer system shows us all of the connecting passengers including those who have a chance to make the flight. As much as we want to, delaying the flight for a few connecting passengers has a trickle-down effect. Your aircraft will connect with or become another flight, and your crew is mandated by the FAA to only work a maximum amount of hours before taking a rest break. If we delay the flight, they could time out and we would have to cancel. It's like a series of dominoes so we have to be very careful the whole operation stays on time."
Q: What do you hate most about your job?
"Cost cutting has reduced the level of staffing at the airport, and I am typically working the gate by myself. This means that I have to meet the inbound aircraft, assist with unaccompanied minors and wheelchairs, work the counter to answer passenger questions for the new flight, board families and wheelchair passengers for the new flight, clear standbys and upgrades, and board the plane alone. All within 30-45 minutes sometimes. It is very stressful!"
Q: What do you love most about your job?
"The airport environment is a very hectic place, and the job is fast-paced and intense. There is literally no time even to take a bathroom break. But, I love the challenge that each flight poses. There are so many variables involved, but at the end of the day, it is an exciting process. I love meeting so many different people. You really learn a lot about humanity!"
Q: Do you know who the federal air marshals are?
"Yes, we call them FAMs. We typically board them first and they are almost always sitting in an aisle seat in first class. They are not on every flight though. The flight crew's typically informed who the FAM is, but passengers can easily spot them since they're usually sitting on the plane already when everyone else boards. Kind of defeats the purpose in my opinion, but that is the procedure."
Q: Is it true that you can upgrade people at your own whim? Is it important to dress nicely if we want a free upgrade?
"On an oversold flight,we can definitely move someone up to first class, and yes, the better dressed you are, the more likely you are to nab that seat. I am not going to put someone wearing flip flops up front with our best customers. It also pays to be courteous, to smile, and to be patient. I would rather give the better seat to someone who makes my life easier. If the flight isn't oversold, it's a different matter. In the old days, we had a lot more leeway on who we could upgrade. These days, the process is entirely automated, and the computer dictates who gets upgraded based on elite status, fare paid, and if there have been other travel disruptions during your journey. We just assign the seats once we clear upgrades off of the standby list. Even if we did manipulate the system, we are constantly audited so would have to explain why we upgraded someone for no reason."
Q: Do you know how much each person paid for their ticket?
"Yes, we can see everything about your ticket. How much you paid for it, where you bought it, and when you bought it. It's funny because sometimes travelers will say how expensive their ticket was when they bought it or how they had originally booked first class in an effort to snag an upgrade, but we can see all the details. If we click through enough screens, we can see how many miles you have, when your birthday is, and even your address."
Q: Is there something you wished travelers would do better?
"Definitely! Please, please, please do not crowd around the gate 30 minutes before boarding. People will just stand there and stare at me waiting to board. It's not like this is the day after Thanksgiving at some incredible sale. Yes, overhead space is at a premium, but you are just slowing down the boarding process for everyone by blocking the pathway. Stand to the side so that people can board when their row number is called. Until then, stay seated or out of the way. Your fellow passengers will appreciate your kindness."
George Hobica is a syndicated travel journalist and founder of the low-airfare listing site Airfarewatchdog.com. Follow Airfarewatchdog on Twitter @airfarewatchdog for late-breaking unadvertised airfare sales and air travel advice.