One of my girlfriends, Rebecca, is a Flight Attendant for mainline United Airlines. In discussing our careers, she said, "You seriously have to be an incredible type of human to be a Gate Agent." I laughed, thinking that surely her job was more difficult than mine -- she could potentially be stuck, at any given time of her work day, 30,000 feet in the air, with less than 400 square feet of space to work in, accommodating up to 50 passengers all by herself. I'm on the ground, with a few hundred thousand square feet of work space, accommodating up to 76 passengers at any given time, with an entire team of people able & willing to help. She is the real MVP!
Then I was welcomed into week two of Gate Training, which involved mostly independent operation of the gates. Delays, oversold flights, involuntary de-boarding passengers, deplaning two entire flights, rerouting passengers who were missing connections, etc. Maybe my mainline United friend, Rebecca, was right... You seriously do have to be an incredible type of human to be a Gate Agent.
I was assigned to Gate 7, but we had an inbound flight reroute to Gate 9, which is like the redheaded stepchild of all the gates. No fancy flatscreen televisions, the shortest gate podium of all time, a teeny-tiny computer screen to manage all four applications I need to have open, the gate mic just far enough away to be an inconvenience, & my personal favorite, no belt loader for the gate-checked luggage... The Ramp team literally had to throw each gate checked bag up to me, one at a time, for the inbound flight. Thankfully after that flight was clear, I was able to return to Gate 7. Fancy screens & a podium that is tall enough even for me, hallelujah!
If you live under a rock & missed the news reports, Colorado Springs & the surrounding cities had winds up to 101 MPH on Monday & Tuesday. Which was awesome, because that resulted in some delays & turbulent flights for our passengers. We had an outbound to Houston at Gate 5 that was oversold, but we got our three volunteers in a flash -- which is always an amazing feeling, we love our volunteers. A sincere thank you to anyone who has ever given up their seat in exchange for a travel voucher! That Houston flight ended up delaying due to weather, so we accommodated those passengers that needed to have their connecting flights rebooked. Prior to boarding, the pilot entered the boarding area to prepare passengers for the turbulent flight to Houston, assuring them that they would arrive safely despite the turbulence. I know I've only been with the company for a month, but I have never seen a pilot take the time to be so personal with our passengers. The moment was inspiring. Anyway, fantastic speech was given by the pilot & then Marti began boarding her passengers.
When flights are delayed, we work really fast & really diligently to get that plane off the ground as quickly as possible. All of the Houston passengers were boarded, we handed in our final flight paperwork... and we waited. Watching from the terminal, we eagerly wished this plane to the runway -- but it stayed put. Come to find out, a scratch had been discovered on the exterior of the aircraft. Scratches on a car? No biggie. Scratches on your skin? No biggie. Scratches on an aircraft? No matter the size, scratches on an aircraft are a giant safety hazard. Despite the passengers & crew being ready to take off, the aircraft was not. After about 30 minutes, the plane was deboarded per the pilot -- which means that every passenger we put on, was now taken off. Chaotic? Yes. Remember my original blog post introduction to Terminal Tales where I detailed that safety is our number one concern as airline employees? This is one such example. The scratch was small, the aircraft very likely would have made it to Houston without incident... but this isn't a business for taking chances. The mechanic was... ahem... thorough (read: really slow about writing his report). But we were able to reboard all passengers. Eventually. The flight did arrive in Houston, about three & a half hours late. Better late than never... ?
Meanwhile, I had an inbound aircraft to prepare for at Gate 7. While double-checking my paperwork at the podium, a disgruntled passenger approached Joni & I. She said that she wanted to make a complaint to management about the service she received in the food court. She proceeded to explain about the terrible service. Then she complained about the prices of airport food. Then she told us about the gig that she's trying to get to. Then I smelled the alcohol on her breath & made note that she came to us from the bar across from Gate 7. While she was babbling about her terrible experience, I was looking up the phone number for her to make an official complaint to the airport -- because, no ma'am, the airlines are not in charge of the restaurants. Before I could even give her the phone number, she was already seated back at the bar. Thank goodness she was so concerned about letting the airport know about her experience....
Guess where I was assigned on Wednesday? GATE NINE, the redheaded-step-child gate that was designed to be a complete inconvenience to tall people. This gate is used in situations when we need the extra ramp space, & with all of the cancellations & delays because of the weather earlier in the week, an outbound flight from Gate 9 was necessary. All of the radios had been given out when I got to the gate a little after 10 A.M., so I was without a radio -- this was no bueno & was frowned upon, but I honestly had no other choice. The moment I reached the podium, I was bombarded by passengers requesting their seat assignments & confirming that they were in the right gate area. While this is happening, I notice that my flight is oversold by two seats, so I had to start brainstorming & looking for good candidates to volunteer. And while that was happening, my flight crew arrived, so I had to confirm their ID's & badge them through to the ramp. Praise the Heavens above that I had two eager, willing, & completely pleasant passengers who were willing to give up their seats. My brain was practically Jell-O after closing the flight -- if Mari (pronounced Maury, like the talk-show host) hadn't been there to assist with my oversells, I probably would've just laid in the fetal position & cried.
I was mostly a floater for the remainder of Wednesday. I felt slightly useless, because everyone was so efficient at their jobs. Watching Joni & Marti man their gates independently was enjoyable to experience. We really have come so far in just a month's time. All was running smooth like butter... until we had another issue at Gate 5. Good grief, is Gate 5 cursed?? This particular aircraft was originally assigned to fly to Los Angeles, so it was holding approximately 9,000 pounds of fuel -- entirely too much fuel for its new assignment to Denver. So guess what we did... We deboarded every passenger & every gate-checked bag while we released a few thousand pounds of fuel. This is when I said a silent prayer, asking God to never assign me to Gate 5.
After that flight successfully took to the skies, Joni prepared for her next outbound flight. To generalize the demographic of this flight: a lot of entitled passengers who had forgotten to pack their listening ears. I would like to take a moment to make a Public Service Announcement on all airline employees behalf:
1. Listen to the frequent. sometimes obnoxious, & mostly repetitive, gate announcements. Chances are we've already answered your question, had you just listened to us five seconds ago when we were talking over a PA system. But yes, how can I help you?
2. When we ask for volunteers, don't approach the podium to explain all of the reasons why you HAVE TO BE HOME TONIGHT! We asked for volunteers, not for overdramatic reactions to needing volunteers.
3. When there are three Gate Agents who are allegedly "standing around" & "not helping answer your questions", take a second to, again, listen. My supervisor said she would be right with you, ma'am. But rather than hold your place in line & be patient, you removed yourself from said line. Then you called someone from home to complain to them about how "There are three people standing here & none of them will answer my question, & I don't have a seat assignment!" You're right, there were three of us standing there & we weren't helping you that very instant -- that was because an issue for your flight came up & the two of us in training needed to know how to resolve that issue, both for your flight & for the future flights just like it. You proceeded to interrupt my supervisor's lesson three times, despite her repeated, friendly, smile-filled request for you to wait one moment. We were able to assist those next passengers waiting in line about sixty seconds after you removed yourself. And then you tried to cut off every. single. passenger. in. front. of. you. Please don't be a douchenugget. Please be a responsible & respectable human. Wait your turn, or just drive next time.
4. When your question has been answered, please step away from the podium. Lingering for your seat assignment, literally right in front of the podium, is a disservice to you, to me, & to every other passenger who is in line. We literally just explained that we would call you up by name when we had your seat assignment confirmed -- don't worry, you won't miss it as long as you packed your listening ears.
5. Crowding the boarding area doesn't help us board any quicker. Boarding groups are assigned for the sole purpose of helping board planes quickly & efficiently. Please sit down until your group is called. This isn't a Black Friday deal on a 70-inch flatscreen television -- this is an aircraft. No one else has your same seat. All 50 of you are going to take off at the exact same time, & all 50 of you are going to land at the exact same time. I promise.
I don't think I have to say it... but I will. Gate 5 is cursed & that's where I was assigned on Thursday. Every inbound & outbound flight, I was holding my breath, throwing salt, & donning fresh garlic. The flights were running smoothly & on time, with no weird hiccups. I thought I had surely dodged the Gate 5 Curse. I boarded up my last passenger to Los Angeles, with plenty of time to spare, & closed the boarding. I handed the Flight Attendant my paperwork, confirmed that our passenger numbers matched, & I was in the clear... or so I thought. Moments later, I was made aware that the aircraft was overweight -- meaning that three passengers needed to come off of the aircraft. We first asked for volunteers to come off the flight, in exchange for a reroute to their final destination & a $150 travel voucher (which is the most that can be given when a flight is weight-restricted).
We had one volunteer & one non-rev passenger (fancy lingo for airline employees, who are always the first to come off if a deboard is necessary for any reason), which meant that I needed one more passenger to be pulled from the aircraft. Great. This is called an Involuntary Deboard (IDB) -- which occurs when a passenger is forced to give up their seat for a weight restriction or due to an oversell. My supervisor assisted in showing me how to arrange my passengers by name in a list of class/priority order. For example, passengers who booked their ticket directly through the airline four months ago will have top priority. The passenger who booked through a third-party website last night will have the lowest priority. Secrets of the industry, it's fascinating. Tekora broke the news to our passenger who had to be involuntarily deboarded -- ugh, guys, we absolutely hate doing this. Thankfully, he was successfully booked on our next outbound flight, which was boarding at the same time that he was removed from my flight. All three passengers were rebooked & all three passengers eventually made it to their final destinations, but that was a really stressful few minutes that felt like hours. Thank you, Tekora, for your assistance & patience. For real. I'd be lost without your example, patience, & guidance.
Back at Gate 7 for the day, hallelujah! I thought surely, since Friday was the 13th that I was going to be in for it -- but this was the smoothest running day of them all. To start my morning off right, Andrea (my roommate) bought me Starbucks, with an extra shot of espresso, & she even made homemade biscuits. Bless you, child. I walked into work Friday morning feeling like a million bucks.
As I'm preparing to board my first outbound of the day, a passenger approached me, saying that she was on the earlier inbound flight & that she left her jacket on the plane. She offered to go look herself, but passengers are not re-permitted access to an aircraft once they have removed themselves from it. I advised her of said regulation, & explained that my priority was in getting these passengers onboard for an on-time departure, & that she would need to wait until my boarding was complete before I could check for her jacket's whereabouts. In the meantime, I contacted my coworker assisting with this flight to check with the flight crew, in case they had found a jacket. I could tell this passenger was mildly perturbed by my "solution", but she had one job to keep hold of her belongings. I can't fail at my job because she failed at hers.
While balancing her impatient stares, answering radio calls, answering telephone calls, & boarding other passengers, I had another passenger who wanted to be added to a standby listing for a later flight. I told her she would have to wait a moment until boarding was complete so that she could be assisted properly. Minutes later, when my boarding area was clear, I walked down to the aircraft to check for Impatient-Stare-Lady's jacket, which was found & returned to her. Then I responded to the needs of Standby-Listing-Lady. I was reviewing her itinerary when she said, "You know, I used to think this was a really simple job." I laughed & agreed, because I used to think the same thing. What an easy job to make a couple of announcements, scan boarding passes, & shut a door. HA!
That's what people see us doing on a daily basis, but what they don't see are the countless variables, responsibilities, & audits that occur every single day for every single flight. I have been training at the gate for two weeks, & it still makes my head spin. I have been a waitress, wedding photographer, court reporter, Probation Officer, & many other titles. Without a doubt, this is the hardest job I have ever had... but it's also the best job I have ever had. Standby-Listing-Lady got a small taste of the chaos, seemingly overwhelmed by the events that took place while she waited her turn in line, grateful that we were able to process her request amidst the multiple tasks that were simultaneously occurring.
Maybe my mainline United friend, Rebecca, was right... You seriously do have to be an incredible type of human to be a Gate Agent. Suddenly my laughter about Rebecca's earlier remarks turned into a nod of agreement. She's right, it does take an incredible type of human to be a gate agent, & I'm proud to say that I work alongside some of the most incredible humans at COS.
Me, Marti, Tekora (our fearless leader), Joni, & Jenny. Notice that we're in front of Gate 5.. haha
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.