Could you handle a gate agent’s job?

Running a travel blog and working with twenty wonderful writers, thousands of media and industry contacts and maintaining a dozen side projects keeps my stress level remarkably high, but I could never handle what an airline gate agent goes through.

Airfarewatchdog‘s Ramsey Qubein spent a day working as a Delta gate agent recently, and his experience was as dramatic as I had expected. In one day, he experienced the full spectrum of travelers, from crazy, angry and delayed passengers to the nicest people in the world. Among the experiences that he collected in one single day were passengers who handed him boarding passes with their teeth, decrypting the archaic booking system and angry flight attendants offloading from Detroit. You can read about them all over at Yahoo news.

Needless to say, I now have further respect for a vocation that I already thought was pretty darn dramatic. I’m amazed that anyone can handle that job every day without developing an ulcer.

Galley Gossip: 3 reasons flight attendants won’t allow passengers to switch seats in flight

Dear Heather,

What is the proper etiquette for switching to an open seat? Should I ask the flight attendant first? Is it okay to switch to another row if only one person is occupying the row?



Dear Rich,

Go for it! Switch seats. You don’t have to ask. But you might want to wait until everyone is on board before making your move. Worst case scenario a flight attendant might ask you to return to your original seat. Big deal, so what if you have to move back? Most of the time the open seat is yours for the taking – as long as it’s in the same cabin as your ticketed seat. Which brings me to the first class stowaway…

“Whenever I travel I always wear a nice suit and board last,” said the passenger seated beside me on a flight years ago. I don’t remember where we were going, but I wasn’t working so he had no idea what I did for a living. “As I’m passing through the first class cabin I’ll slide into an open seat. If the flight attendants say anything I’ll quietly offer fifty bucks.””And that works?” I asked, not sure what to make of the guy.

“Sometimes,” he laughed.

I told him what I did for a living. Then I added, “the money wouldn’t make a difference to me. I’d still send you back to coach.”

He looked perplexed. “Seriously? What if I gave you two-hundred dollars?”

I just smiled.

“Three hundred?”

Hey, I don’t blame the guy for trying. Just remember that if you do try to pull a fast one, we will find you, and we will send you back to where you belong.

Oh I know those first and business class seats are calling you. And yes, it is a shame when they go out unoccupied. But since flight attendants do not upgrade passengers once they’re on board a flight, don’t even bother asking. We’ll just tell you to speak to an agent. It’s the gate agent who has the upgrading power. This is because the agent is the one who has access to a computer in order to input frequent flier miles or credit card numbers that are needed to purchase a seat.

Every so often a passenger will actually score their own row. What that passenger may not realize is that they do not own the row. So if you would like to sit in an open seat beside one of these lucky passengers, be my guest. If the passenger complains or does not allow you to sit down, let the flight attendants know and we will inform the problem passenger that unless they purchased all three seats, the open seats are not theirs to keep.

Here are three reasons a flight attendant may ask you to return to your seat:

A PASSENGER PURCHASED TWO SEATS: While it doesn’t happen often, it does happen. I’ve seen it. Once. A single passenger boarded my flight carrying two boarding passes. Both of them were in his name. I didn’t even ask to see them, but he showed them to me anyway, in case any issues came up in flight. And he was a regular sized passenger.

A DISPLACED FAMILY IS ON BOARD: Flight attendants may need to use an open seat in order to move passengers around so that they can accommodate families who are not seated together. It’s not fair for singles, I know, but do you really want a kid screaming for his mother the entire flight?

BLOCKED SEATS: A seat can be blocked for all kinds of reasons. Missing seat belts and oxygen masks are two of the most common reasons. It doesn’t matter if the seat belt sign is off or how fast you think can run back to your seat in case of a decompression, the seat is blocked. Case closed. Go back to your seat!

Hope that helps, Rich. And here’s wishing you lots of open seats on your next flight!


UPDATE: Is has been brought to my attention by several flight attendants that not all airlines are created equal. Regional carriers dealing weight and balance issues do not allow customers to switch seats so freely. Also, flight attendants working for airlines with economy plus sections offering more room in coach, do recommend checking with a flight attendant first before moving to another seat, since certain sections are off limits to passengers in coach who did not purchase the extra space. And now with airlines charging for exit rows, bulkheads and aisle seats, switching to just any seat in your ticketed cabin may not be possible.

(Got a question? Email )

Photo courtesy of Kathy Stewart and Waketheman

Be sure to check out Episode 5 of Travel Talk TV, which features a Santa Cruz beach adventure; explains why Scottish money is no good; shows how to cook brats the German way; and offers international dating tips!

Five ways to spot awful customer service

When I think I might have problems with patience, my wife is always happy to confirm it for me. Since I hate to wait in line, expect employees to know what they are doing and always be having a good day (at least as far as I can see), my standards are sometimes ridiculously high – and my moods similarly foul. Unfortunately, this sometimes leads to a bit of mercy. Sometimes, in a fit of sanity, I realize that I may be overreacting. When this happens, I usually give an inept service provider a pass.

So, how can you tell? You don’t want to be unreasonable with gate agents, concierges and taxi drivers, but you also shouldn’t have to be a pushover. When is it okay to leave a shitty tip? When should you stand up for yourself when a driver doesn’t arrive at your door on time? It can be harder than you think to navigate these areas of travel ethics. So, after the jump, take a look at 10 ways to spot genuinely awful customer service. Even if you are more patient than I am, these are of a caliber that will guarantee you’re not out of your mind for being pissed.

1. You are greeted with some variation of “not my fault”
This one is in the top spot for a reason. There is nothing worse than having a driver, flight attendant or any other travel industry employee use those three words. Why? There very utterance implies that there is a problem. Would someone give you a comp’ed spa treatment and say, “Not my fault?” Of course not! Further, the phrase actually puts you on the defensive. You’re mad because you didn’t get what you expected, and the service provider is telling you that what you feel is inappropriate.

Remember: when you pay for a service or item, you are entitled to what you paid for. There’s no way around this. If there is any deviation from that standard, the company you are paying should be singularly focused on making it right – even if the person who is stuck with that burden didn’t play a direct role in creating the problem.

I know that sometimes the person who receives your anger may not deserve it. In the case of my customer service disaster with Carmel Limo over the summer, the driver probably got screwed up by a dispatch department that wasn’t paying attention to detail. But, he needed to remember that he’s in the customer service business. If he had accepted my attitude and tried to make the experience better, Carmel would still have my business … and he would have had a fantastic tip. Instead, both lost.

2. You are told to be happy with what you get
When an airline “comforts” you over a delay by saying, “It could be worse,” or some form of that, you have every right to be angry. When a hotel employee tells you that you should be happy to have a room at all – even if it doesn’t meet your standards – because the hotel is booked or for any other reason, you should be alarmed about the service you’ll receive for the rest of your stay. And, when you are told to live with whatever problems you face in the service for which you have paid, you’re getting screwed.

Any deficiency should be met with a remedy. Ideally, this would entail fixing the problem (e.g., moving you to a room with hot water, to choose a particularly painful example). If that’s not possible, related measures to make your experience better in other ways (from free stuff to upgrades) should be brought to the table.

The more remote the remedy is from the problem, the bigger the incentive should be. I remember staying at a small mid-town Manhattan hotel back in 2003 (can’t remember the name – I stayed in close to 20 in a period of six months). I was only there for a night, and that morning, there was no hot water. None. And, I had to spend most of the day in meetings. Since I booked the room through, the manager said she couldn’t refund me. To make the situation right, all she would say is, “I’ll make it very ‘comfortable’ for you next time you stay.” Did she mean a lower rate? A free night? Two? I have no idea. After persevering 30 seconds in a cold shower before giving up, I didn’t care.

3. You’re not the only one to complain
If you complain to the service provider and hear, “Several of our guests have brought that to our attention, we’re working on it,” be patient. It may be a big problem that requires time and people to address. Yet, as time passes and the number of complainants increases, you’re dealing with a situation that’s unlikely to involve a swift resolution. The longer you wait, the greater the effort the provider should make to appease you. Also, they should do something to make you as comfortable as possible in the interim. If this isn’t happening, you’re getting shafted.

Airlines are the most egregious violators of this rule – and usually combine it with the first point, above. They will tell you that you’re not alone, do nothing to make the experience more comfortable for you and then claim it isn’t their fault. Of course, these companies will tell you that they’d love to help, but airline economics are such that they just can’t afford to. What does this mean? Well, read between the lines: it is a conscious commitment to lousy customer service.

4. You get attitude
Regardless of how big an asshole you may become, there is no reason for a hotel, airline or other travel employee to get visibly irritated or angry with you unless you go too far – which includes physical threats, excessive use of profanity or a voice loud enough to imply a physical threat. If you are in a bad mood, ask firm questions and demand straight answers, you aren’t doing anything wrong. The only appropriate demeanor on the other side of the counter should be to smile and be helpful.

Now, the travel industry folks will claim that the rest of us don’t know how hard it can be. But, I’m pretty sure that the average accountant, attorney, consultant or investment banker – along with many, many other professions – has had to cope with an upset client. The abuse that these guys receive can be incredible, and they sit down, shut up and take it … because of the fees involved, probably. I’ve been there, and most of the people I worked with in my consulting days have been there. When you have an upset (or irate) client, you have to assume that the situation is your fault – even when it isn’t. If your travel-related service provider doesn’t share this belief, you’re right to get angry.

5. Excuses, excuses
When you are given reasons for a particular turn of events but no remedy, you are certain not to be satisfied. Shit happens, as we all know, and it’s incumbent upon every human being to find a way to life with it. Yet, when a situation does go south, the provider should start to find ways to fix the situation. A problem with a reason but no resolution is an excuse. A problem with a reason and a remedy – or at least a way to minimize the pain – builds customer loyalty for a lifetime.

Galley Gossip: How flying standby can make you religious

Dear Heather,
I read your post about flight attendant buddy passes and I think you forgot the best part about flying standby. You become a much more religious person. Why? Because when you fly standby you tend to pray a lot…
It all starts when your alarm goes off at 2 AM. “Please God let the loads on the aircraft be light and let me be the first on the stand by list.”
Then when you get to the airport and see your name on the list, you start the second round of prayers. “Please Lord let me make this flight, please!” Most likely you won’t make the flight, but you will get rolled over to the next flight, and so on and so on until you FINALLY hear what you’ve been wanting to hear all day…your name called! YES!
By this time it’s usually late in the afternoon. You’re given a boarding card and immediately start praying again, “Thank you Lord Jesus for this boarding pass.” You make a mental note to go to church more often!
While opening and shutting several full overhead bins, the flight attendant makes the PA that everyone must take a seat so the flight can depart on time. You begin to panic and pray for an empty bin, because as a non-rev you were the very last person to board and the flight is full, full, full. After you find a bin, and thank God, you take your seat, a middle seat located in the last row, and though you should be happy and jumping for joy, you’re not out of the woods just yet! In fact, as an experienced non-rev standby passenger you will not stop praying until that cabin door is closed!

Oh no! Now the gate agent is walking down the aircraft aisle. The praying and sweating are going into overdrive. You try not to make eye contact with the agent as he/she walks down the aisle. The praying continues at a furious pace, “Please don’t let the gate agent come to me, please God, please!”

Your heart is racing faster and faster as the agent gets closer and closer and that’s when it happens. He/she stops, looks you square in the eye, and says, “we have a revenue passenger that needs your seat. Please collect your belongings and follow me.”

Then it’s on to the next gate where the praying and waiting start all over again!

Mark, an optometrist / wannabe flight attendant

Dear Mark,

Holy Moley, Mark, I will pray that you never have to non-rev travel again! But you’re right, non-reving is a stressful experience, one I dread each and every month, which is why I almost always buy a seat whenever I travel with my three-year-old son.

Whenever people find out I’m a flight attendant and start hinting around for a buddy pass, I just shake my head and think to myself, are you crazy! Because seriously, it’s just crazy to non-rev when you can buy a ticket for cheap on-line for cheap these days. Especially if you prefer to actually arrive at your destination, not spend the entire day rolling from gate to gate.

And now a question for you, Mister Wannabe Flight Attendant, why, oh why, would you want to be a flight attendant? I know you’re crazy because you’ve been non-reving – by choice, but just how crazy are you? Please tell me this flight attendant thing is just a fantasy and not something you’d actually do, not when you’ve got a fantastic job already. I mean do you really want to wear the pin striped apron and serve chocolate chip cookies at 30,000 feet? Because honestly, I wouldn’t mind wearing the white robe with the thesescope while asking people to read the last line.

Hmmm…are you thinking what I’m thinking? Maybe, just maybe, we should get together (during Halloween of course!) and swap uniforms. Call me.

Thanks for the letter. I couldn’t have explained non-rev travel better.

Happy Travels,

Heather, a wannabe doctor who will be praying to get on a flight next week

Photo courtesy of (meditation) Joe Shlabotnik, (doctor) Curt