Why Gate Agents are Amongst the Hardest-Working Employees of Airlines

When you arrive at the gate at an airport to board an airplane for your flight, at least one person is behind the counter to check you in — if you have not already done so — as well as attempt to accommodate your requests and answer any questions you may have about the flight…

Why Gate Agents are Amongst the Hardest-Working Employees of Airlines

…and although I am certain that what John posted in the Comments section of this article pertaining to what being a gate agent for Delta Air Lines is like — as written by René deLambert of René’s Points earlier today — was intended to be with a sense of humor…

Jeez, If Delta felt comfortable turning loose 80 Flyertalk wackos with no training to do this job for a few hours, how hard could it be? LOL

I’m not sure the general public would be pleased to know their flights and seat assignments were being handled by untrained volunteers. It seems that letting volunteers do this job actually shows contempt for the work that gate agents do. Delta would shoot the employee who ever suggested volunteer pilots, FAs, dispatchers or air traffic controllers.

I’ve done a police ride along before but in no way ever pretended to be a cop. Now if Delta ever solicited volunteers for working on the ff program, sign me up!

…I do want to address what he wrote, as I was one of those people who participated in being a gate agent for the morning several years ago — and not just for one time, either.

The Experience of Being a Gate Agent

While it was not exactly what one would call a comprehensive training, the people who participated awoke at 3:00 in the morning — I donned my silver and blue tie, which closely matched the uniform at the time — to be in time to attend a thorough briefing session with other gate agents prior to being dispatched to the airport. We were alerted as to what to expect when performing the work of a gate agent and given a lot of information.

Even then, we were rarely left alone to work at the gates. Speaking for myself, the gate agents with whom I was assigned in both Concourse B and Concourse D at the international airport which serves the greater Atlanta metropolitan area were there with me most of the time. I performed such tasks as giving announcements via the public address system; scanning boarding passes; upgrading passengers; moved passengers to different seats aboard the airplane using the computer terminal; directing people to the gates for their next flights; and boarding passengers.

I remember one gate agent quizzing me on airport codes which were in the system before we started. Not only did I immediately get them all correct; but believe it or not, there was one airport code with which she was not familiar at that moment and I had to remind her. We laughed — and yes, she was quite impressed. This was in Concourse D when the passengers of several regional jet flights used to board airplanes simultaneously; and that airport code was one for a small obscure airport.

As a frequent flier, I was all too familiar with the tasks which are customer-facing. Not one passenger knew that I was not an employee of Delta Air Lines. I knew exactly which flights were at what gates; when boarding started for a particular flight; and even where the public washrooms were located. The gate agent knew quickly that I knew what I was doing…

…but the tasks which occurred behind the scenes was where I had many questions — and the gate agents answered in detail. Ensuring that all of the information on a printout from a dot-matrix printer — you know, the one that seems to be forever printing — is stuffed in an envelope is only one of myriad tasks which is the responsibility of the gate agent.

Other than not being allowed in the passenger jet bridge on my own, there was one cardinal rule that could not be broken no matter what: the flight must depart on time. If that does not happen, the gate agent can potentially suffer from serious repercussions from the airline. Delayed departures are costly to an airline in many ways — financially and in terms of reputation to customers as only two examples.

One woman from Ghana with two children in tow arrived just after we closed the domestic flight in Concourse B for the airplane on which she was supposed to be a passenger. The gate agent was busy; so a fellow “gate agent for the day” and I did our best to calm her down to buy time for the gate agent. She was initially so upset that she threw a pillow at the podium of the gate and implored how she had to be on that airplane — but when she realized that another flight was not much later in the day, she was relieved. The real gate agent took over and completed the process — thankful that we were there to calm her down while he finished what was needed to be done to get that airplane out on time.

I have even had my share of odd requests. “Can you please tell me where the gates to Continental Airlines are located?” asked one man, knowing that he was asking at a gate operated by Delta Air Lines. I came out from behind the podium and cheerfully directed him to where the gates were located; and I also pointed to the signs which clearly marked where the gates operated by Continental Airlines were located in case he was distracted.

No Passenger Jet Bridge Operation

I would have jumped at the opportunity to operate the passenger jet bridge; but I was not allowed to do so under any circumstances, as the responsibility can be intimidating: I was told of one passenger jet bridge operator who had a minor accident and caused some damage to the airplane. That person was immediately sent home. I was given no additional details on that incident.

Operation of the passenger jet bridge is taken very seriously — and rightfully so.

Summary

I did not have my notes in front of me when I wrote this article; so I left out a lot of information as to all aspects of my experiences — as well as all of the reasons why gate agents are amongst the hardest-working employees of airlines…

…but comparing what we did to riding along with the police is basically comparing apples to oranges. We already knew a lot of information based on being frequent fliers over the years — and even though we had fun, being a gate agent is not exactly a job which I would like to work for 20 or 30 consecutive years.

Interestingly, gate agents asked us as many questions as we asked them. We both learned a lot from each other and had a greater appreciation for each other — so much so that for years, we all became friends of sorts. One of the gate agents with whom I “worked” spotted me in the airport years later and called me by name — we were all on a first-name basis at this point — and we hugged and laughed and reminisced. Working with the gate agents was an experience which I will never forget…

…nor will I forget about how much work for which they are responsible doing — and they are not exactly getting rich doing it, either. Gate agents are amongst the hardest-working employees at an airline who are under tremendous pressure with every flight to which they are assigned. They have dozens of tasks which they must complete in order to get that airplane to depart on time.

The next time you interact with a gate agent, give that person a smile and let him or her know that you appreciate the job that he or she is doing. You will make that person’s day.

Photograph ©2010 by Brian Cohen.

6 thoughts on “Why Gate Agents are Amongst the Hardest-Working Employees of Airlines”

  1. James says:

    I read your article thouroughly, yet I cannot understand a bit as why you decided that gate agent are anywhere being hard working, let alone being hardest. Woke-up at 3.00 am? Plane must depart on time? Every line of work have their own rules and there’s always reason to justify such rules.

    Unless those agents are bunch of lazy people, then yes. Being gate agents is the hardest work in airlines. Same thing applies to anykind of work.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      That is because I left a lot of information out, James — plus, operations were normal and the weather was fine during my experiences.

      I cannot comment on what the job is like during irregular operations — and as a passenger, I have unfortunately witnessed customers verbally abuse them countless times.

      I invite any authentic gate agents to add their thoughts and experiences…

  2. James says:

    Hmm… what are those left out information I wonder…

    As for abuse by pax, that’s the experience of any frontline jobs. Even if you are a gate agent, hotel receptionist in say Japan or Singapore, there’s no guarantee you wouldn’t one day have to face drunk-crazy-abusive customers.

  3. Reality says:

    Deal with shitty people? Absolutely. Stressful? sure, depending on your definition of stress and competency. Hardest working? Definitely not, though it’s a pretty low bar. My mom my 2 aunts have all worked as gate agents for different airlines and it’s definitely not a hard-working job. That’s precisely why many of them continued with their job.

    Looking at irrops staff in the airline war room, now those are hard-working people.

  4. Mark says:

    As a former United gate agent, I can tell you that on normal days without overbooked flights, it’s an easy job. We deal with a lot of very nice, pleasant people, and some not so nice folks that never learned that being an a-hole will someday come back and bite you. And it definately won’t help get you what you are asking for from a gate agent. We do have some discretion, depending n the request, and that’s all part of the job.

    When the flight is overbooked, the pressure ramps up as yes, you are held accountable for getting everyone seated for an one-time departures. That includes preparing ahead for getting potential volunteers and moving people around so that everyone is accommodated.

    As you might guess, we earn our pay during irregular operations, and it can be quite stressful. It’s not the operational decisions, as they are made by Operations, but we are responsible for keeping everyone calm and informed, as that is critical to the eventual departure. Some gate agents are better at this than others. Humor helps. Then there are the questions from passengers, many of which are normal, but some require some self censoring before answering. When is the fog going to lift?

    As for holding a flight for connections, while a group of elites might warrant that, the on-time departure and cost factors are balanced. If the inbound flight was delayed by mechanical, for example, and no other connection flights were available, that would mean hotel, meal, and transportation vouchers, so they would likely hold depending on the number of connections. The gate agent does not make hold decisions, Operations, or a supervisor does.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      Thank you so much for imparting details as well as your experiences, Mark. I greatly appreciate it and enjoyed reading about them.

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