Ever wonder what those gate agents are doing at a busy gate as they type furiously into a computer? What powers do they have that can help you as a frequent traveler?
Gate agents are busy folks. Their job is to oversee a safe, on-time departure and arrival of flights. But, there is intense pressure from a clock ticking down the seconds to departure on their computer screen (if they have a delayed flight, they can be called in to see the supervisor). Add that to frustrated travelers that have to deal with full flights, lousy airport food and service and long security lines.
Many years ago airlines reduced gate staffing, and in many cases moved the gate counter closer to the boarding door so that one person can more easily handle more tasks efficiently. That might have saved some cash, but overhauling decades-old computer programs seems to be too expensive and complicated in many cases.
This leads to gate agents being forced to work with archaic computer programs that require numerous codes to perform simple functions. That explains why they always seem to be typing endlessly on their keyboards.
They also are charged with learning reservation and routing rules behind tickets, loyalty program benefits, and new security regulations to keep things operating smoothly. Now that you understand what they must do, here’s a few pointers on things that they can and cannot do for you.
Can I score a free upgrade just for being nice? Yes and no. These days, airlines have become quite strict in this regard, which makes it much harder for an agent to give a comped upgrade. They certainly can (and do on occasion), but it could also raise a red flag with a supervisor requiring an explanation if not justified.
Free upgrades are perks that frequent travelers are eligible for based upon their elite status. Upgrades are prioritized on a list that an agent must follow. The only time an agent has some discretion to provide a free upgrade is if the flight is oversold, and they need to move someone up. If you’re lucky, it could technically happen, but the advice about dressing right and smiling profusely does not work as often as it once did.
What about getting a better seat? While they are quite busy, agents do have the power to assign new seats, and better seats are often available close to departure as many are blocked or reserved for elites and carry an extra fee. Often at the gate, exit rows, bulkhead seats, or entire rows of empty seats may be available. Sometimes someone with a great seat may cancel or miss the flight due to a late connection, so politely ask an agent before boarding to see if there is a better seat. They are very busy so use good judgment on the best time to approach them. An opportune time is around 30 minutes before departure as that is when many upgrades are processed and blocked seats can get released.
When is the best time of day to travel? Gate agents often suggest that morning flights are more likely to be on time because there is less chance of previously delayed flights to affect your flight. A cascading effect has a bigger impact on flights later in the day, which is why there are more likely to be delays (plus fewer options for rebooking in case a flight is delayed or canceled). While that 6 am flight is rough, it is most likely to be on time since airlines place special attention on getting the first flight of the day from each airport out on time so as to minimize any delays further in the day as much as possible.
Why is my flight delayed…the gate agent is keeping quiet? Many airlines, American is a big culprit, are slow to post information on flight delays. This means people may rush to the gate for an “on-time” departure only to find no plane there. This lack of information is often the result of an airline’s operations department trying to determine the next step. Cancel the flight? Tow another plane to the gate? Post a delay that keeps creeping longer and longer? If a gate agent is not saying anything, that means they are awaiting additional information. Gate agents want to tell you as much as they can as fast as they can to avoid a line of angry passengers. But, sometimes, they don’t know either. An agent can help you in being protected on the next flight or looking for an alternative. But, it pays to be nice and patient in the interim.
I don’t have an assigned seat…will I be left behind? Airlines block seats for frequent flyers, families with small children, or those needing special assistance. Plus, now that airlines are charging for certain seat assignments, it means many people may not have an assigned seat until right before departure. Don’t fret. Agents know that there are people with confirmed reservations and no seats. It doesn’t mean you are on standby, but only that the agent is working to assign seats (this can actually work in your favor because sometimes seats with more leg room can be available since some people didn’t want to pay for them).
Once the computer allows them to start unblocking seats, they will. Can an agent give me compensation for a delay or bumped flight? Different airlines handle this in their own way. Some agents can provide compensation on the spot while others may send you to a customer service agent. It pays to know what your rights are. If you were denied boarding with a confirmed reservation, you are entitled to greater compensation than someone who voluntarily gives up their seat on the next flight. Gate agents have heard it all, and saying things like “I am never flying this airline again” will not make them respond any differently. They don’t have the ability to throw extra miles around, but many airlines are now giving gate agents tools needed to provide perks like snacks and drinks during a delay.