With the welcoming of 2017 also comes the welcoming of my weekly blog series, Terminal Tales, where I highlight all of the humorous, interesting, & embarassing stories I encounter working as a Ticketing & Gate Agent. I entered week three of training this week, which involved a very fast-paced, mind-numbing introduction to the tasks of a Gate Agent.
You know who the Gate Agents are... they have that soft, velvety voice, updating you about your flight's information, they assist you in boading the aircraft, & they remind you to have a lovely flight. Then add in some sunshine & rainbows, with a touch of poise. I thought this sounded simple enough, considering I've been an airline passenger for as long as I have been driving. Public speaking doesn't necessarily bother me. I can scan boarding passes. I got this. WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG.
And then the reality check reared its ugly head. I walked into work on Tuesday morning, my fellow trainees & I trailing behind our trainer like little ducklings, eager to learn & take on the tasks required of us at the gates. I really don't know how to accurately describe the pandemonium that was our first week. The previous two weeks of training at ticketing had been relatively smooth & paced well enough that I could absorb what was happening, I could ask questions. The ticket counter was a bit more of one-track tasks. The gate? The gates goes something like this:
I'm watching the FIDS board on the computer to make sure all of my inbound/outbound flights are on time. If they are delayed, I make an announcement to update passengers. I'm listening to the radio to make sure I am up to date on the latest flights from Ops, listening to ensure that there have been no gate changes, listening to hear if the rampers need assistance & in what capacity, listening to make sure the baggage room is running smooth like butter. I'm making gate announcements for the flight preparing to board. I'm checking my SSR's to see if there are any passengers with disabilities or special needs who need assistance deboarding my incoming flight... and then checking my SSR's for the outbound flight departing the same gate, so I can get an idea of how many passengers will need extra assistance & time to board the aircraft. I'm reminding passengers about our baggage policy, assisting them in tagging their carry-ons that will be gate-checked because some of our planes have smaller overhead bins. Then I'm tagging strollers as "special handling" items to be gate checked upon boarding. I'm printing off the flight paperwork that will be given to the pilot once the plane is boarded. I'm looking at the flight's passenger list to see if the flight has been oversold... if it is, I begin to solicit volunteers by dangling shiny (not really) travel vouchers in front of them that they can use for future travel. I look at the flight list again & begin upgrading the passengers that paid for upgraded seats, if available. I'm looking at my standby list for those passengers & crew members who are just hoping to catch an open seat on the flight. All of this is happening at the same time. I repeat. All of this is happening at the same time. Meanwhile, passengers approach the podium to ask questions. Can we check in yet? Is this flight still on time? Do I have time to go to the restroom? Why isn't our plane at the gate yet? I have an hour between flights, is that enough time to switch gates? My boarding pass says boarding should have started five minutes ago, so why aren't we boarding yet?
In the corner of our operating system's screen, there is a ticking clock, counting down by the second to the flight's scheduled departure time. This clock is supposed to be helpful, but sometimes it's just a brutal reminder of how quickly everything can fall behind. And falling behind means that planes don't leave on time. And when planes don't leave on time, the entire day of scheduling gets screwed up. For example, let's say that the inbound aircraft is coming from Denver, full of passengers. It's going to land in Colorado Springs, where the Denver passengers will deplane. Then we load up all of the Colorado Springs passengers on the same plane & take them to Houston. From Houston, that same plane will fly a whole new set of passengers to Chicago. Imagine a snowglobe, all calm & sparkly. So peaceful, sitting on the shelf unscathed. So soothing.
Now give it a good shake... & welcome to the airline industry. Those little flakes of fake snow are a decent depiction of what your brain looks like when your'e working the gate. I used to think Gate Agents were so adorable -- but now I know. Gate Agents aren't cute at all. They're actually total badasses.
Our first flight made it out on time, barely. I sat back, mesmerized by our trainer's ability to make gate announcements while simultaneously checking in passengers & checking updates in Ops. She kept pointing to that ticking clock & telling us how much time we had left to seal the doors, it was a total adrenaline rush. We were beginning to start the work for our second flight when we got word over the radio, the one that I'm haphazardly listening to among the chaos at this point, that the flight we're working has been delayed due to weather in Denver. The gate announcement about the delay is made, which disappoints 90% of the passengers, as the delay will cause them to miss their connecting flights. The line forms & the passengers's sighs begin. I smile, I smile a lot. I apologize, I apologize a lot. At this point, there are three lines forming across the gate, as we are utilizing all three stations to rebook passengers. Passengers who are flying out for job interviews, who are returning home after the holidays, who are going to weddings, who are going to funerals. I pinky promise you, guys, I am going to rebook you & get you to your final destination in the quickest fashion, with the least amount of hassle. The more I am able to accommodate you now during the rebooking, the more helpful I am being to my teammates around the country, down the line to your final destination. I will even put you on another airline if I have to. We will get you where you need to go. Please be nice, & please be patient. I completely understand when you whine about "Just wanting to be home" -- trust me, at that point of my day, I just wanted to be home, too.
After day one at the gates, I poured some bourbon over ice when I got home, & I barely made a peep all night, I was so overwhelmed by it all. Do I still love my job? Yes. Do I wake up every single day excited to go to work? Yes. Even though it's winter in Colorado -- which means delays & cancellations just about every single day -- I still look forward to what the workday holds. I have plenty more to learn. Plenty. But, I'm actually excited to learn about it. Our passengers have been so pleasant & understanding this week, too. Sure, there were a few bad apples. Remember that Disney Channel Original Movie, The Ultimate Christmas Present, where the little girls steals Santa's weather machine & an out of control snowstorm breaks loose? Yeah. I'm not that little girl & weather machines don't exist, but apparently there are still people out there who think that airlines are responsible for the weather. For those passengers who understood that weather is beyond my control, they were completely pleasant to handle.
By Friday, we were able to run the gates (mostly) independently. I'm learning that a flight rarely runs completely perfect. So many cards are constantly at play, there is no such thing as perfection in the airline business. And what a perfectly fitting sentiment for real life. Because life isn't always perfect. Because your decisions aren't always perfect. Because your circumstances aren't always perfect. Life forces you to adapt, & you are given the opportunity to choose your reaction, to choose your perspective, to choose a side. I want to encourage you to choose joy when the opportunity arises. To choose compassion. Love. Empathy.
This week overwhelmed me, absolutely. Every day was an adventure, every day had at least one story. In this new position, despite feeling inadequate at times, I feel completely supported by my teammates. I have to say thank you to everyone behind the United COS desks, who bestowed patience, understanding, & expertise to us new kids on the block. To our trainer, Tekora, for her ability to teach & laugh with us, to answer every question we ask with grace. I can't close out this week without also giving a mad shoutout to all of our passengers who were patient through the delays, who smiled even though they were frustrated, & who volunteered to rebook if flights were oversold. This industry cannot work without its people -- our passengers & our crews proved that this week. Thank you for flying (& working) the friendly skies, it was an absolute honor to serve our passengers while working alongside the best crews a girl could ever want.
Megan Elizabeth is a storyteller based in Kalispell, Montana. Take a peek at her blog & portfolio, drop her a line, & follow her story on Facebook & Instagram.