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Ah, yes, the gate agents—the airline personnel standing at that small desk filled with outdated computers near the jetway entrance. Ostensibly, gate agents are there to help you, but their main task is the punctual departure and arrival of flights.
That means managing the boarding process, figuring out last-minute seating, communicating cancellations and delays, and helping passengers who might miss a flight due to tight connections. Gate agents must be familiar with reservation and routing rules, understand the numerous changes to frequent-flier programs (customers are keen to point out their status, but there’s no need because agents can see that info once they pull up a name), and comply with all FAA rules. In some airports, gate agents also handle multiple roles like working the ticket counter or even handling late baggage.
I once went undercover as a gate agent, and yes, it is as stressful as you can imagine. This might be partly because gate agents are the last airline representatives you see before you board—meaning while they’re working, they’re also fielding a lot of customer service questions unrelated to their mission of a timely takeoff. But what can they actually help you with?
A lot, turns out, but unfortunately, not everything. Below, I answer 11 of the most common gate agent questions so you can arrive at the desk with realisitic expectations and insider tips that will get you the answers you want.
Can I sweet-talk an agent into an upgrade?
Probably not. Airlines have become quite strict in this regard. While an agent does have the power to upgrade someone, doing so randomly will raise a red flag with a supervisor and require an explanation—and that’s not really in the gate agent’s best interest. Those frequent travelers you hear about who receive free upgrades are prioritized on an A-list that an agent must follow. The only time agents can give a free upgrade to the hoi polloi is if the flight is oversold in economy and they have to place someone toward the front of the plane.
So while it does pay to be a nice guy, it comes down to being in the right place at the right time. If the flight appears to be full, approach the agent nicely to volunteer your seat and take a later flight if needed. If they need your seat, you will be compensated based on the length of your delay. At this point, you may politely ask to upgrade to first class on the next flight. No guarantees, but definitely a good strategy. Plus, if they need to upgrade someone on your flight, maybe they’ll appreciate your flexibility and throw you a bone.
Can I at least score a better seat?
Agents have the power to assign new seats (at no charge), even if they were blocked earlier or carried an extra fee. They can dish out the popular exit rows, bulkhead seats, or even point out where an empty row may be available. It all comes down to how and when you ask. Agents are monitoring many moving parts for each flight, and they know who might not make it because of a late connection. The time to ask is 30 minutes before departure—that’s when many upgrades are processed and blocked seats can be released. Just ask nicely.
Can a gate agent get me on the plane after the cabin door closes?
No. It’s not as easy as it might seem to open the door and add another person to the flight. Before the door closes, the agent must close out the flight. This means providing the captain with a printout of vital information, including the total of passengers, bags, and cargo onboard. This information is used to calculate the weight and balance figures for the flight. Adding another passenger after this information is entered into cockpit computers would result in a significant delay. Plus, your seat may have already been given away to a standby passenger or an airline employee.
Can gate agents hold the plane to wait for last-minute stragglers?
Sure. Let the agents know someone is coming, and they’ll do their best to help you—but all comes down to that on-time departure. If your friends aren’t at the gate within 15 minutes of pushback, agents have the right to cancel the seat, although they will likely do their best to hold it. Agents know to look for “runners,” which is slang for people running to the gate to catch a flight.
What happens if I don’t have an assigned seat when I get to the gate?
Relax, it doesn’t mean you’ll be bumped. Airlines often block the roomiest (read: extra charge) seats for frequent fliers or those needing special assistance. If you’re late checking in, there may be no regular seats left, so the ticket agent will hand you a seat-request card. It’s like a placeholder and can actually be a good thing. Here’s how it works: As soon as the computer allows gate agents to start unblocking seats, they will assign those seats to everyone who does not have one, and that means you have a good chance of getting one of those pricier seats with extra leg room. Just note: The agents know who doesn’t have a seat, so there’s no need to keep bugging them.
Does the gate agent decide how much compensation I get for flight delays or when I’m bumped?
Technically, no. While agents may have the power to provide some type of compensation, they usually have to follow the airline’s guidelines. Flight delays, even those within the airline’s control, like mechanical issues, do not change the gate agents’ powers. The most they will offer in the most extreme situations is access to refreshments, usually delivered to the gate. When a flight is oversold, gate agents can print vouchers to use toward future flights for volunteers who give up their seats, but they do not have access to cash, nor can they determine the amount awarded. Typically, only a supervisor can issue a check, and that’s only when someone is involuntarily denied boarding.
Can the gate agent get me on an earlier flight for free?
Each airline has a different policy for how to handle this, but no, gate agents have to charge the fee that applies to your ticket class or airline elite status. Some airlines, like Alaska, JetBlue, and Virgin America, are known for their rather lenient policy on changing flights for free at the airport, but most other airlines charge for the last-minute change.
What about a later flight?
Any voluntary flight change must follow the airline’s policy and may even involve a difference in fare. Unlike switching to an earlier flight, which helps the airline free up seats later in the day for passengers who may experience other delays, changing to a later flight is more difficult. Your empty seat on the earlier flight is now flying without bringing additional revenue to the airline.
Can they get me access to the VIP lounge?
Can I convince a gate agent to let me board early?
Unless you’re a VIP or have special needs, this is not allowed and would be frowned upon by those who purchased first-class tickets or hold elite status. Still, it’s a simple request, and a friendly smile and pleasant demeanor can trump this rule. Just be sure not to ask when the agent is swamped with other tasks.
Why does it seem like the gate agents hold back info during a delay?
This perception from passengers is unfair. Agents take their cues from the pilots and control tower personnel, who weigh numerous factors when making a decision. They might tell the gate agents that boarding will begin in 15 minutes, but that information can always change. The agents want to tell you as much as they can as quickly as they can. It’s better for them than a line of inquisitive passengers. Know that they are simply the messengers with often limited information.