Welcome to Terminal Tales, the weekly blog series where I highlight my favorite personal encounters with passengers while fulfilling my job duties as a Ticketing & Gate Agent. In this week's edition: my first four days back to work since the United debacle... & a pretty, polite pilot.
This was my first day back to work since the United incident that sparked controversy around the globe. I hardly slept the night before, & I was completely restless because I wasn't sure what to expect at the airport. I am rarely rattled, but this was different. The industry that I love suddenly took on a new feeling overnight -- & I wondered how this would affect my job & my ability to do it well.
After my mediocre sleep, I arrived to work at 4:15 A.M.. My coworkers all seemed calm & unbothered, probably because this was actually three days after the incident took place in Chicago. Because this was my first day back, I still felt unsettled. I was assigned to the ticket counter, which I was grateful for, because I was certain I would be of little value at the gate if passengers were to be unruly. Typically when we come out of the morning meeting, there is an influx of passengers waiting to check-in (even though we don't open until 4:30 A.M., people are there chomping at the bit, anxious & worried that even though they are the first people in line, they will somehow miss their flight). On Thursday morning, I walked out of the office & turned the corner... the hoards of people that I expected to see were nowhere to be found. I saw only two passengers. Two. Granted, Thursday is one of our slowest days at the airport, but to look into the empty airport lobby after reading every single negative news article was an eerie experience. That experience tapped directly into my emotions that I had been harboring all week as the news continued to flood my television & social media feeds. I spent my entire day off on Wednesday talking to friends & strangers about policies that are in place to protect both the passenger & the airline, about how to remedy the situation that unfolded in Chicago, about how the airline world can be a better place for our passengers, & about how to be more empathetic without violating policies that are in place. I love the commercial airline world, & I want to see to it that both passengers, crew, & staff are treated equally, kindly, & with respect. By Thursday, I was plain exhausted.
In checking flight totals, none of our flights this particular morning were oversold -- thank God. I had more than one passenger ask, with quite an ample amount of attitude in their tone, if their flight was oversold. "Will I have a seat?" or, "You didn't give my seat away to a crew member did'ja?" I would take a quiet, deep breath, smile, & give them their boarding passes with their confirmed seat assignment. "Actually, sir, your flight has nine additional open seats at this time. Thank you for flying with us." Smile again. I had another passenger say to me, "Well, thankfully I'm not flying through Chicago!" And again, I had to smile & build confidence among the passenger I was speaking with directly, knowing that every other passenger within earshot would also be influenced by my reaction to such comments. Remaining professional without yanking out my hair was the real test this week, though I could stand to lose a few strands. I found myself hesitating when speaking to passengers, taking extra caution to run my words through an internal filter before speaking them into existence.
One particular passenger was checking in using the kiosk, & every coworker at the ticket counter was able to greet this passenger & provide for a seamless check-in process. After retrieving his boarding passes from the kiosk, he smiled, said thank you, & shouted through the terminal, "Go United!" with his hands raised in the air. I yelled back, "Tell your friends!" But that simple exclamation on his part filled me with hope, reminding me that tragic events happen every single day, & that I am only responsible for my own actions & reactions. I can quit, or I can keep working hard to provide the best customer service experience to my passengers. The job itself is hard, demanding, & stressful -- I've returned home from work just to cry more than once (more than likely due to my lack of sleep, which tends to make me overly emotional). But this is a job that I legitimately live for, a job that I love. This is an industry that has a reputation for poor service & bad attitudes... & I crave the challenge of turning that around. I want people to trust me & to trust the airline, that we will get you from Point A to Point B by whatever means necessary. Can I guarantee a smooth flight every time? I wish! But airplanes are like cars -- sometimes you go to start them & they don't turn on. And don't get even get me started on the weather.
One of my last passengers to check-in on Thursday was flying to Chicago to make a connection to Frankfurt, Germany. He was using the kiosk to pick out his seat assignment in regular economy. The upgrade options appeared on the screen, which showed that we had First Class upgrades available for his nearly nine hour flight. The price? Over $2,000.00. As I was watching him select his seat, my eyes got bigger & bigger. Did he just tap the First Class upgrade? No way. Oh my gosh, he did. Oh my gosh, now he's swiping his credit card. I tried to not let the sound of my jaw hitting the floor distract him. I am yet to take a long-haul international flight (darn you, Amsterdam) so I can't speak as to the value in spending over two thousand dollars for the one-way upgraded seat in addition to the cost of the actual ticket... but, I do know that they have a wine & cheese plate, dessert tray, & lay-flat seating, so I'm going to happily assume it's worth every penny. I wished him a safe & relaxing flight.
I also had to work at the restaurant Thursday night, so I went home for a quick nap after leaving the terminal. I had a few guests that evening pay with the airline reward credit card, so I was sure to make a personal stop by their tables to thank them for their continued business & support. I also had a few guests who knew exactly who I worked for & they wanted to voice their opinions. I'm not sure which job was more stressful, the terminal or the restaurant twenty miles from the airport. The entire day, I was building frustration, anxiety, & pain over the entire situation, plus my lack of sleep the night prior made me all that much more emotional, I stopped in to the distillery after leaving the restaurant to give Montana (beautiful friend & favorite bartender) a hug, because I needed one. And of course, that got the tears going. After I recovered, I happened to run into two of my regulars from the restaurant who were walking by the distillery, & they immediately gave me "puppy-eyes" when they saw me, which also made me cry. And then I went to see one of my best friends for another hug, which also made me cry.
Sweet goodness, I was in for a long week.
Because we typically rotate between counter & gate shifts, I knew I would be assigned to the Gate on Friday morning. I was working Gate 3, which had an outbound flight to Chicago, Denver, & Los Angeles during my shift, respectively. Of course, my first flight for my first day Gateside is a Chicago flight. You know that weird feeling when there's an "elephant in the room," but you literally can't say anything about it? Multiply that feeling by about one hundred & that's how I felt.
I began preparing for my first flight to Chicago, looking at the flight totals, special service requests, & so on. The tension in the air could have been cut with a shoestring, & I absolutely hated it. I felt compelled to say something over the mic, stated strategically in my welcome announcements, but knew that I couldn't, because there would be no way to predict the terminal's reaction. People felt very strongly, one way or the other, & I did not want to spark any more outrage... I simply wanted to voice my commitment in delivering quality service to passengers to help rebuild the bridge of trust between us. I looked out into the sea of faces in the gate area, & every passenger looked concerned, stressed, or afraid. Their emotions were seeping into mine, & I felt every ounce of stress in the room. Again, I felt compelled to say something. I stared at the departure countdown clock for about 20 minutes deciding if I should say something other than my welcome announcement eventually resolving that my demeanor would be of the greatest impact, & that I could address the "elephant in the room" by simply smiling, ensuring a quality service to these people, & by knowing my job & fulfilling those duties well. Acting as if I was unaffected by the event, or as if the event never happened, was extremely challenging. This was the first time I had ever been nervous at the gates.
The flight actually had open seats, which made for a seamless boarding process that didn't require any Oversale solicitation in the boarding area. As I was boarding the passengers, one stated that I was "pleasant," to which I responded by saying thank you... & also how much I love & believe in this company, saying it loudly enough that others in the boarding area could hear. My cheeks were sore when boarding was closed, as I smiled extra to deliver a friendly experience.
My next outbound flight to Denver was oversold by one passenger, so I solicited the boarding area for three volunteers, just in case. We always solicit for more seats than we need. Why? Because some itineraries don't have a lot of flight options, & volunteers can back-out if they decide they don't like their options. Given the week's circumstances & given that I'm not a complete idiot, I went right up to the maximum voucher amount that I could personally offer passengers for volunteering, which was, at the time, $500.00. I had a passenger approach me about volunteering, & we went over the options for his new itinerary, should we need his seat. (You would be amazed how many times we begin oversold, solicit for volunteers, & then end up not needing a volunteer at all, as passengers frequently change their minds, decide to leave on a later flight, miss their connection, or just plain sleep in & miss their flight altogether. Which are just a few reasons behind overbooking of flights... but, I digress). I had a new itinerary confirmed for the volunteer, should I need his seat, & advised him of the process. He looked at me & said, "I was watching the news & they said you can offer up to $1,350.00 in travel vouchers. Can I get more than $500.00?" Again, always take the news with a grain of salt, people. "Sir, if you were involuntarily denied boarding, you would be entitled to additional compensation, but at this time, since you are volunteering to give your seat to another passenger if necessary, the most that I can personally offer you from this location is $500.00 in travel vouchers." He seemed a little confused, but agreed to volunteer & took a seat in the boarding area. After he was seated, I had two other passengers volunteer, & had backup itineraries set for them just in case.
Thirty minutes prior to the flight's departure, I restricted the flight, which is done on all express flights 30 minutes prior to departure, as it prevents late passengers from being able to check-in if they arrive late to the airport. Every airline, depending on its airport location, has different check-in guidelines, so read the fine print of your booking. I began boarding passengers while my three volunteers sat next to the podium awaiting further instruction. While boarding passengers, I was advised that the flight may be weight-restricted due to weather -- which is when an airline removes a passenger to accommodate for the weight of extra fuel required to fly through storms & wind. I told Operations that I had three volunteers standing by if necessary, & continued boarding. When all except my three volunteer passengers had boarded, I told those three men that I was going to confirm with the Captain about their seats before permitting them to board & that I would return shortly, briefly explaining the possibility of a weight-restriction. I closed the jet bridge door behind me & proceeded briskly down the bridge. Upon confirming that I had three open seats on the flight & that the weight-restriction had been lifted, I literally ran back up the bridge & was able to board my three volunteer passengers. And the flight still departed on time. Win!
I was back at the gates on Saturday morning, & was feeling slightly more confident than I had yesterday morning. I knew now to expect hints of uneasiness from passengers & to make myself extra approachable to calm those visibly nervous & worried travelers. I'm not a mean person, but I was being looked at, talked to, & treated (by some passengers) as if I was the bad-guy.
Being a Gate Floater usually means that I am without radio communication, so I am constantly walking between each of the gates to make sure the Gate Agents have everything they need, assist in valet-checking bags, help with reroutes when IRROPS (irregular operations) happen, complete security checks on aircrafts, & so on.
Now that "the incident" was older news, passengers became more vocal, thinking that they could crack jokes about what happened. I had a handful of passengers approach me to ask if their flights were oversold, turning their tone & saying that they'd like a warning before being thrown off the plane. They would say this while laughing nervously, as if their filter caught up to their words too late, forgetting that they were in an airport talking to an airline representative that would prefer to never joke about the incident. I don't care how clever or funny you thought the memes were over the last week, but I do care that a passenger was injured. Period. And I will not laugh about that.
I was assisting Leni at Gate 3 when I started chatting with a couple who was flying to Maui for a six-week vacation. They're retired & doing it right, it seems. We were having a lovely conversation when the woman asked, "Is this flight oversold?" The way that she said it, in the tone that she did, completely changed my demeanor... because I knew exactly where this conversation was going. "Because I really don't wanna be thrown off this flight!" I think sometimes people react to uncomfortable situations with humor, but in this instance, it wasn't appropriate. She kept making wise-cracks, her husband behind her shaking his head & telling her to be quiet. I think she genuinely didn't see the harm in making jokes -- so I had to cease my conversation with her, because now it was making me uncomfortable & adding additional tension to an already on-edge boarding area.
This particular passenger was also a photographer, & she had her hard-case Pelican camera storage container with her. The aircraft was a CRJ-200, which seats 50 passengers & has overhead bin space that can barely hold a backpack. Her Pelican box would be impossible to fit on board. "I have to put this onboard with me. There are cameras & lenses worth thousands of dollars in there." Listen, I totally hear you. But fitting that cargo onboard is literally impossible, it's a hard case box that is too large to fit overhead & this aircraft doesn't have a closet. At this point, we were in the bridge together, so I ran back up the jet bridge & grabbed some "Fragile" stickers to put all over the box, then ran back down the jet bridge to adhere them to the case. I went down another set of stairs to tell the Rampers on the tarmac that the case contained cameras & lenses, & to be as gentle as possible. Then I ran back up the stairs & onto the aircraft to advise her that the we were able to adhere stickers & communicate to our Rampers that the box was, indeed, just as fragile as the red sticker predicted.
Another day at the Gate, which is my favorite place, so I was happy to have another day assisting passengers in the boarding area. I was assigned to Gate 3, which is separated from Gates 5 & 7 by a store & restaurants, so it's mostly secluded from my teammates & the other passengers.
I had about five non-rev (non-revenue) standby passengers on my first outbound flight-- which are employees, retirees, their family members, or their enrolled friends who fly on Seat Available status for leisure travel. Meaning if the aircraft has extra seats, then those seats get awarded to the non-rev standbys. Yes, one of the airline benefits is flying for free, but you have to remember, it's only if there are open seats after boarding all of our valued, paying passengers first. Of those five employees trying to travel, I could only accommodate two of them, so I had to rollover the other three passengers to the next departure over two hours later. Two of those people were employees who knew how to check other options & evaluate how to adapt their travel plans. The third passenger was the mother of an airline employee, & she was slightly less familiar with how the process worked. When I had the time, we looked at Passenger Boarding Totals (PBT's) together to give her a few other options to get home to San Francisco. I still don't know if she made it or not, but I trust that eventually she made it safely, one way or another.
Now. We need to talk about someone who became the highlight of my week. I was walking back to Gate 3 from Gate 5 & turning the corner to the podium when I noticed a (you guessed it) tall, dark, & handsome man in the boarding area. He was studying the monitor, so I made two immediate guesses about him -- he was a revenue passenger who was trying to make sure he was in the right place, or, he was an airline employee checking to see how many open seats were available on this flight to Los Angeles. I asked if I could be of any assistance, instantly regretting that I chose an extra five minutes of sleep in lieu of a decent hair-do. He stated that he was an airline employee trying to get to Los Angeles for a non-work-related trip & was seeing how many open seats were available on the direct flight. He was one of two standbys, with three open seats. Listen, ya'll, I rarely get giddy-girl-mode... but I could not help myself. I remained composed on the outside, but I was doing some serious internal somersaults. He decided to list for the flight, so I confirmed that I had him on my non-rev standby list & told him I would assign a seat as soon as I could. He made himself comfortable in the boarding area... meanwhile, I tried not to drool. Pull yourself together, Megan. Although he was in Boarding Group 3, he opted to board last of all the passengers. He asked for my name & employee number (wait, you don't want my actual number?! Just kidding. Sort of.) so I wrote the information he requested on his boarding pass. He thanked me for assisting him that morning, we had a quick sixty second conversation about aviation geek stuff, & then we parted ways. The flight departed on time, despite my frazzled/embarrassed/girl moment where my pupils became actual hearts. Don't worry, I'm rolling my eyes at myself as I type this. I'm absolutely ridiculous & I know it.
Four days after meeting that pilot, I received an email notification that someone had written a RAVE (Recognize A Valuable Employee), which is like a company-wide way to recognize a fellow employee who made an impact, addressed to me. Who took the time to write said RAVE? None other than that pretty, polite pilot who was flying to Los Angeles. I'm about 100% positive that he is just another friendly human who works hard & loves his job, & that him writing a RAVE has nothing to do with a mutual attraction, but he made my week, especially considering how difficult this week was for me, & for everyone else in the airline industry. Heart-shaped-pupils aside, thank you, Mr. Baker, for making a difference in my day.
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.