What It’s Like to Be a Gate Agent in Atlanta
When we fly, a Gate Agent is the face of our airline. This is the person who lets us on the plane, our link between the ground and the sky. It turns out there’s a lot more to the job than telling you to consolidate your three carry-on bags and telling you why your flight is delayed.
I had the opportunity to serve in that role at the busiest airport on the planet yesterday!
“You’re doing what?”
“Why would anyone want to do that?”
“You’re an idiot.”
That’s merely a sampling of the responses from friends when I shared the news that I’d won an auction for the opportunity to serve as a Delta Gate Agent for a day.
I even told my Delta Gate Agent in Washington, DC as I was flying to Atlanta for the big day. I asked her for some advice. She paused, looked away, and said,
“Don’t do it!’
Perhaps you’re asking how this happened?
I’m a member of an unofficial Facebook group of some of Delta’s most frequent flyers. Every year, the group raises money for cancer research by auctioning off unique experiences. I bid on – and won – the chance to be a Gate Agent for a Day in Delta’s Atlanta hub.
Here’s the story…
We arrived for a morning briefing with senior Delta leaders who did their best to convey the amount of pressure gate agents are under as they’re trying to get a flight out on time.
Even thirty minutes of explanation wasn’t enough. Based on my experience, Gate Agents are under some of the most intense pressure in air travel. They are the front line of the airline industry.
My biggest lesson from the day: Everyone involved in the process wants to get you out on time safely and comfortably.
After our morning briefing, a car whisked me across the tarmac to the B Concourse. Known as “little Lebanon,” it has more Delta flights coming and going everyday than JFK in New York or Minneapolis. In fact, on its own, the B concourse in Atlanta would be the airline’s fourth busiest hub. It’s an intense place for everyone, but particularly for the gate agents. When I arrived at about 9:30 in the morning, I’d just missed some excitement: A guy had to be kicked off of a flight to Minneapolis. He was too drunk to fly at 9:30! In the morning!
After that near miss, my first flight was to Pensacola, Florida. I worked with a fantastic Gate Agent who showed me the inner-workings of the complicated software platform Delta uses to manage their massive operation (SNAPP).
Gate Agents are much busier than you think. Behind that desk are several computer screens displaying hundreds of details about the flight, the plane, and the passengers. They’re processing all of that information while accommodating requests from passengers who want to…
- move, or
- sit together, or
- sit apart, or
- catch an earlier flight, or
- find their gate, or
- board early, or
- check a bag, or
- get an upgrade, or
- find a bathroom, or…
All within 45 minutes.
It’s a stressful job.
Oh! And it becomes even more stressful when you’re doing it while scores of people anxiously stare at you.
Back to that Pensacola flight. It was full, but with 10 minutes to go, we were still missing one passenger. She should have been at the gate since her connecting flight arrived in plenty of time to make this plane. But she was nowhere to be found. There were several standby passengers staring at us with hangdog looks hoping for the one free seat on this flight. Despite several calls, the missing passenger never showed. We finally released the seat, making room for one of the standby passengers. The joy on his face!
While the “real” Gate Agent delivered her final paperwork to the pilots, I had the chance to head down to the ramp and watch the jet and the airport pull apart from each other. It was amazing!
I headed back up to the gate where the agent dealing with the missing passenger who’d suddenly appeared. As you’d expect, she was upset that the plane had already departed. It was not her fault because…
“I only stopped at Popeye’s for a quick lunch.”
After we’d secured her a seat on the next flight to Pensacola and she was on her way back to Popeye’s, the gate agent pointed out that the woman hadn’t shown up late for this flight. Instead, she’d simply arrived early for the next one. #GateAgentHumor
The second flight I worked was bound for Panama City, Florida. It was a “tighter turn” (meaning there was less time to get arriving passengers off and departing passengers back on) than my last flight. But, just as before, the Delta machine worked smoothly and everything was on time.
My final flight was heading to Houston, Texas.
I got to use a new mobile boarding scanner Delta is testing called a “Nomad.”
I’ve always been impressed when Gate Agents have said, “Welcome aboard Mr. Brooks. Thank you for being a Diamond Medallion.”
Trying to scan a boarding pass, recognize each passenger by name, and thank them for their status was a nearly impossible challenge. I only got it right once. And that was for a friend of mine who was flying through Atlanta while I was working and stopped by to say hello!
I have a new level of respect for Gate Agents.
I also had the opportunity to head down to the plane to offer a passenger an upgrade. As you’d imagine, he was genuinely excited (but honestly, I don’t think he was as excited as I was!) I’ve been on the receiving end of that once and it is a fantastic surprise.
When I got back, I asked why the flight was so empty.
“You know there’s a huge hurricane heading for Houston right now, right? We’re issuing travel waivers.”
It turns out I hadn’t realized where the flight was going — too many other things to focus on.
Anyway, the Gate Agent sent me back down to the plane to deliver the final paperwork to the pilots. The “final paperwork,” by the way, includes passenger information for the flight attendants and weather as well as weight & balance information for the pilots.
When I stepped into the cockpit, the First Officer asked haltingly,
“Where’s your Uniform?”
“Oh! I’m a Delta fan and had the opportunity to be a Gate Agent for a day!”
“Oh. Cool! How’d you get to do that?”
After handing over the final paperwork, I had to ask the flight attendants two critical questions. They’re the same questions every gate agent must ask before closing the door to any flight you’re on:
“Is the cabin Secure?”
“Have the passengers in the exit rows been briefed?”
“Have a great flight!”
And I closed the door.
Afterwards, we had lunch with a few of Delta’s finest leaders. We talked about our mutual love of Delta and exchanged our most ridiculous air travel experiences (the story about a passenger going to the bathroom in his seat was the clear winner).
I then asked them what they liked most about working at Delta.
Their responses were all about the people and the culture. They helped me better understand Delta from their perspective.
“Our most senior leaders — including the CEO — value us.”
“My Mom worked at Delta, I was raised with the Delta values.”
“We get to do what’s best for our customers and our leadership supports us.”
The consensus was that Delta gives its employees the chance to serve us, the flying public. They truly believe they work for the best airline because they absolutely love their customers.
And I’d have to agree. Everyone we encountered — and I do mean everyone — was genuinely excited to talk with us.
- The gate agents I worked with were so proud to show me their work.
- The people we encountered as we explored the massive flight attendant lounge (it’s under your feet as you walk through the A Concourse) couldn’t wait to show us around.
- The incredibly focused team members we spoke with when we visited the Ramp Tower above Concourse A stepped away from their intense work for a few seconds to thank us for our loyalty.
These are people who love Delta and their passengers.
It seems the Delta logo (the red triangle called a “widget”) represents the three things that make Delta, well, Delta. First, the company itself. Second, the employees. And finally the customers. Delta believes if they take care of their employees, those employees will take care of their customers who will, in turn, take care of the bottom line. How true!
I left the experience feeling even more fiercely loyal to Delta.
As a quick aside, would you believe there are 7,400 Atlanta-based flight attendants? Even more amazing is the fact that they’re managed by only 56 people. That means managers are responsible for about 140 direct reports. Many of whom they may only see once a year.
This is a massive operation and when you step away from it, you realize how absolutely incredible it is that you’ll walk through a door, hurtle through the air at 500 miles per hour, and walk out of the same door in an entirely new place. Kind of puts the whole thing in perspective, doesn’t it?
I was thrilled to play a small part in some people’s experience in this miracle today.