Be kind to gatekeepers

By | April 5th, 1999

James Panto went from first to worst on a trip to Los Angeles.

A gate agent kicked him out of his confirmed seat in the forward cabin and sent him packing to economy class. His crime? He complained about a mechanical delay that forced passengers into a smaller aircraft and backed up his schedule.

“The gate agent claimed there were no more seats available in first class,” remembers the Albuquerque, N.M., sales executive. “But the angering part was that there were two uniformed crew members sitting in the front cabin.”

It pays to be nice to gate agents. Perhaps more than any other airline employees, the folks at check-in have broad powers to make your flight miserable – or magnificent.

Jeffrey Siegal, a graphic artist from Los Angeles, knows the other side. When he arrived at the gate recently with a broken arm, the agent asked if he needed an empty seat next to him.

“My obvious answer was ‘yes,'” he says. Since then, he’s flown on flights that were “booked solid” except for the seat next to him, where he could relax his plastered limb thanks to a kind gate agent.

In the frantic hour or so between check-in and boarding, gate agents are practically all-powerful.

They can upgrade you, downgrade you and even remove you from a flight, often at their whim. But don’t worry, they won’t abuse their position … unless you force them.

“The loud guy who throws the briefcase gets the minimum, no matter how many ‘Rule 240s, Rule 75s’ or other ‘inside information thingys’ he presents,” says former airline supervisor Steven Moore. “If ever I had to go get my boss to deal with a customer, I was always quizzed as to ‘is this guy a jerk or is he nice?’ It is only a two-way street with the ticket agent after the customer makes the first move of kindness.”

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Not all gate agents are so understanding. “When someone rubs you the wrong way, you stick them in the back of the plane between Big Bertha and Andre the Giant,” admits former gate agent Tim Rivers.

Ex-agent Glen Wade remembers one confrontation when a traveler lost his patience with a gate agent who was busy checking in an entire family. After repeated requests to hurry it up, the agent finally snapped.

“She said, ‘Sir, I can only do 15 things at once. And you’re number 16.'”

Are gate agents allowed to punish passengers they don’t like and reward the ones they do? Not really.

At US Airways, for example, gate agents are trained to “treat every passenger equally,” says spokesman David Castelveter. “Every employee goes through training that tells them how to treat a passenger professionally, regardless of the circumstances. It precludes any emotional response.”

The US Airways gate agents are also represented by the Communications Workers Of America, which frowns on any power-tripping behavior.

“It’s not as though someone would say, ‘Ha, I don’t like you,’ and then move you to the back of the plane,” says union spokeswoman Candice Johnson.

But she and Castelveter concede that despite all the rules and regulations, it’s possible for some agents to abuse their power. “After all, employees are people,” Castelveter points out.

My cousin, who is a gate agent for American Airlines, likes to regale me with tales from the front lines. By hanging out with her friends from work, I’ve come to appreciate how they feel about their job.

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The passengers who get upgraded really deserve the better seat; the ones that are sent to a middle seat in sardine class have it coming to them, too.

But try explaining that to someone like Panto, who lost his choice seat to a crew member. I can’t.

At the risk of incurring the wrath of my cousin, I think the system as we know it casts agents as omnipotent gatekeepers and travelers as powerless pawns. It may seem fair, but it’s not right.

P.S. Last week’s column about kids on planes hit a hot button. Of the 9,480 readers who took our poll, almost 62 percent supported the idea of a special kids section on airplanes. A quarter of the respondents thought children shouldn’t be restricted, while close to 15 percent suggested babies should be banned altogether from planes.

But most of the hundreds of e-mails I received didn’t reflect the poll results. A Texas A&M professor described the column as a “horrible child-hating essay” and volunteered her expert services the next time I write about kids and travel. Some of you were offended by one traveler’s suggestion to sedate children. “Why don’t you sedate those whining adults instead?” an angry reader suggested.

But not all of the feedback was pro-kids. One reader wrote, “While there are a few well-behaved kids, the majority on planes are a pain – running up and down aisles, screaming, kicking the back of your seat.”

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