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June 24, 2014

Gate Agents: Pawns of the Airline Industry

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By: Phil Derner Jr.
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The term “pawn” can be very belittling. So first let me say that my reference to them as such pertains to how they are treated, and how they are the unsung soldiers of every airline.

Gate agents are on the front lines. Whether it is a traffic management initiative put in place by air traffic control, weather delays, mechanical delays, a missing bag, an error at a check-in counter or any of the multitude of possible issues that can affect a flight, it is most often the gate agent that has to deal with the customer face-to-face and address or respond to what is being presented to them. They represent the airline and deal with whatever the final trickle-down results are of policy and actions that often take place well above their pay grade and at an office far away from their airport. Their role in being the ones out front who often end up being sacrificed for those standing behind them is the reason that they are indeed the pawns of the industry.

The term “gate agent” is somewhat misleading. This is mostly because a majority of gate agents are not just planted at the gate. They often serve multiple roles, such as operating jetways or moving bags from the gate area to the ramp for belly-loading. There is physical labor involved (are people packing kettle bells in their luggage?!), and when all of that is done, they have to catch their breath, shift their mindset and stand back at the gate’s counter, looking professional and addressing other issues and paperwork with passengers and crew.

They have one of the most demanding jobs in the industry, largely because of their need to adapt to a million different things that can go wrong in this industry that get handed to them. An operations controller at an airline’s headquarters may make a decision to delay a flight, drastically reducing the time that an aircraft has on the ground before it departs again, creating a crunch on the gate agents — especially if they are handling several departures. Then the pilots tell them there will be a new flight plan being sent that needs to be printed up, and the flight attendants tell you that the overheads are full and all other bags need to be tagged and loaded in the belly of the aircraft, and Operations needs to be advised that the caterers have not been to the aircraft yet.

Sounds like a lot, right? None of that addresses the line of 15 people waiting at their counter. Passengers that want a seat change, to flirt their way into an upgrade, to complain about a delay, ask for information about other flights and more. The line also has crew members who are jumpseating and want to be listed on a flight, and standby passengers who want to know the flight loads and measure their chances of making the flight.

This leads to the most important part, which is the abuse that they take. Flying is stressful by default, for many reasons. Then when things go wrong, or a fee needs to be added, or a bag separated from a passenger, it is totally understandable for people to be upset, and there is a natural need to express that in order to feel better. This takes a wrong turn when people take out their frustrations on a gate agent, who is always the most visible and accessible airline employee, and the most lazily convenient person to cast blame onto. This is ironic because 98% of the things that people complain about and yell at gate agents about are things that the agent did not cause and often cannot fix. So this leads to the gate agent being a verbal punching bag, or worse, from those whose level of upset goes beyond reasonable behavior.

One evening I was at DCA trying to jumpseat on another airline. It had been a rough day for flying, and though the delays had calmed down, everyone who was working that day was tired and running on fumes. I, however, needed to list on that one flight, and when the gate agent made a little error and seemed unable to list me, I offered a friendly tip on how to fix it in her computer, to which she responded with a HEAVY amount of attitude and dismissed me from her counter.

I walked away, not angry (though a little concerned I would not make the flight), but instead I felt bad for her. I know what she had surely been through all day and I headed right to one of the eateries in the terminal and got a sandwich, a snack and a drink. I walked back over to the gate, handed it to her, and told her “I’ll bet you haven’t had the chance to take a break and eat all day.” Tears welled up in her eyes and she was so thankful. I didn’t do it to bribe my way into a jumpseat, but because, though my career took me to end up sitting in a comfortable, air conditioned office, I could relate to her from my past experience working in similar roles with her and on the ramp, in poor weather, for crappy pay and no recognition.

So the next time the weather is hell and delays are plentiful and you see a gate agent that’s not having an easy time, go buy them some chips or a soda. You’ll make his/her day and improve the flying experience for everyone involved.

Phil Derner founded NYCAviation in 2003. A lifetime aviation enthusiast that grew up across the water from La Guardia Airport, Phil has a background in online advertising and airline experience as a Loadmaster, Operations Controller and Flight Dispatcher. You can reach him by email or follow him on Twitter.


  • Tuomas Leone

    Well said! Thanks for writing this.

  • Sharphead

    Awesome writeup. Once I was travelling back to Canada through Chicago O’hare to Winnipeg and my luggage never made it to the plane, so I calmly went to the lost baggage counter and asked what happened. They explained that the bags were probably still on the tarmac in Chicago, so we filled out the paperwork, and waited about 2 hours. For most people – who seem to believe their time is worth more than gold, that would seem to be an eternity, but we waited patiently hoping they would arrive on a connector flight from Chicago. In the end it turns out that the bags never arrived and we went home empty handed. We got a call from the airline the next morning and that they located all our bags, and that they would be delivered to us the next day.

    Moral of the story – if I had yelled at the agent, i’m sure it would of taken a week or more.

  • georgann

    I am a gate agent and i could have been the one writing this brief. So,
    it is refreshing to see someone on the outside looking in and seeing
    all the hats we wear working for an airline, and appreciate our job.
    That being said, I do like the day to day challenges, the co-workers,
    the passenger strategies w/ us and last but not the least, I love my
    flying benefit. In general I will stick my neck out and say it is more
    than a job to us ‘gate agents’ otherwise I would not be working w/
    fellow customer service agents that have been in the industry 25-35
    years.
    georgann (only 5 1/2 years)

  • gateagenthell

    Thank you Mr. Derner for a wonderful piece. On a daily basis, agents encounter absurd levels of rudeness and stupidity. Agents can either stress out and go crazy, or they can just laugh and move on.

    A simple act of kindness can change an agent’s entire day.

  • Kevin Fernie

    I too am a gate agent. Well, a little bit more than that. I am a supervisor for a major airline in a small resort city. As Supervisor, I deal with the problems that my agents come across at either the check-in counter or the departure gate. And of course, these are problems that the agents cannot solve to the passenger’s satisfaction. By the time the issue comes to my attention, the passenger is already hot and bothered and demanding “satisfaction”. It can be extremely difficult and stressful to try to lower the amount of anger in the air. My solution? I shut up. I listen to their concerns. I sympathize with them, and I do all I possibly can to make things right. I have to say, though… if a passenger starts to belittle me or attack me personally, I guarantee I will do as little as possible to make him/her happy. I like the author’s approach.. a snack or a beverage means a great deal to us when we have been dealing with irate passengers for hours without a break. I have a passenger that flies our regularly from my city. She always comes to the departure gate with a bottle of Coke for me. “Just in case”, she says…

    PS.. the departure display is a hoot… we depart one of our flights daily from gate 4 to DFW!

  • Debra Ewing

    Thank you for this wonderful article and insight into what we deal with at the gates. Right now in PHX it’s especially bad. We are waiting for a union vote so management is not in hiring mode in case the vote doesn’t pass. The theory is we will all be replaced with vendors at 1/2 the cost with 0 experience. We will not let this happen! Not only for the employees who enjoy working for the airline and the benefits we receive but many of us have personal relationships with our frequent flyers and we are here to serve them as well as our vacation travelers. Rest assured, this vote WILL GO THROUGH and hopefully PHX will be back up and running normal by Fall!