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?”

“That’s ridiculous!”

“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…

Our briefing was very informative.

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).

Once I’d gotten a little more comfortable, I got to make an announcement for a later flight!

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.

Only the greatest gift a passenger can receive: And I got to give it!

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?”

“Yes.”

“Have the passengers in the exit rows been briefed?”

“Yes.”

“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.

The concourse tower is where planes get permission to taxi, delays are addressed, and IROPS (irregular operations like diversions and other unexpected problems) are handled.

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 loved it!

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.

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29 Responses

  1. Nancy Brooks says:

    Great—you really are a wonderful advocate for Delta!!

  2. Lee Greever says:

    Very interesting and insightful.
    I had little idea how complex their job is.
    Thanks for sharing.

  3. Debbie says:

    What a wonderful eye opening experience✈️ Have flown Delta for years, my favorite airline, employees always pleasant &professional. Also very proud of my daughter Robin who also happens to be a gate agent for Delta✈️

  4. Marcia Gilbert says:

    Loved the article. Very true that delta takes care of their employees so we can take care of the passengers. 21 years with Delta and still loving it!

  5. Les Miller says:

    Come on down I will show you how to fuel a airplane. In Atlanta, on international.

  6. Rick Christman says:

    I am glad you were able to experience this. From a young age I was fascinated with travel – air, bus, train. My Grandfather was an agent for the railroad so I probably got the “travel bug” from him. I worked for a small, So Cal airline, now defunct as so many are. I had that job as well as “Ramper” (bring the planes to the gate, load bags, send the plane out) for nine months. I never, ever thought I was working. I absolutely loved it! The only problem is there is little money in the travel industry probably because so many want to do it. I left because of the low pay (raising a young family 35 years ago on minimum, wage was extremely hard). So I got a job that required me to travel. I still travel for my job, internationally, with at least three flights per month. I have a deep appreciation for what the agents at the Check-in counter and gate go through. Because of that I am always calm, even when things aren’t going right. When the pane has a mechanical issue and you aren’t leaving on time, remember that it is better to be down here, wishing you were up there than being up there (with a mechanical problem) wishing you were down here.

  7. Summer Bayer says:

    Great article. It was a pleasure to meet you! Come back and work with us anytime!

  8. Franklin Miller says:

    IT WAS A PLEASURE WORKING MY HOUSTON FLIGHT WITH YOU. I WAS TRULY IMPRESSED BY YOUR DESIRE TO LEARN WHAT A GATE AGENT DOES,COMING BACK ANYTIME!

  9. Gary reimer says:

    Many years ago a work for a company called West Coast Airlines, as a station agent. It was a one person, per shift operation, you did it all, ticked reservations, load maifest, weather, loading the plane, talk about stress, anyway liked your story, reminded me of the old days.

    • Traveller says:

      Wow! My job (for a day!!) was a lot, but not nearly as much as you had to do at West Coast Airlines. Thanks for sharing your story!

  10. Edward Branch says:

    I have to say that after 27 years of living in Atlanta and flying with Delta most of those years to many of the worlds destinations, I do feel a bit sad that the passenger care, eg. food service, space between seats, entertainment amenities etc, has
    been somewhat diminished. I understand that the economy has dictated much of it but I am just saying that I have not been “feeling the love” as much as I used to. Delta does have wonderful, attentive employees. Quite professional and confidence inspiring.

  11. David Distefano says:

    Jeb I so enjoy your posts and this one is no exception. Wonderful insights on the life of a gate agent and by the way, you make a handsome one yourself. 🙂

    Keep the stories coming and as always, safe travels.

  12. Darrell James says:

    I love all of your videos!! They job you did for a day was my life for 26 years at Air Canada (AC) and Air Canada Jazz (QK). I started a bazillion years ago when the airline was called Great Lakes Airlines, then Air Ontario (GX). The day in the life of a Gate Agent is quite the roller coaster ride. Calm happening, then 45 to 60 minutes to departure “it hits the fan” then one the door is shut, back to calm.

  13. Gregg Hillier says:

    Hi Jeb ! Gregg in Portland Oregon here. Love you trip reports on youtube (I’m the one who complimented you on your watch on the Air Azores trip report). Anyway, wanted to share my experiences on several carriers – notably Delta and American with you. I lived and worked in Texas and Oklahoma for 15 years and flew mostly AA. I was Executive Plat for 7 years and even though AA is hated by many, I had few negative experiences with them. It helped flying out of a small Airport (Tulsa) where the Agents knew me and were eager to assist me with anything I needed. I discovered quickly that the overall experience with AA largely depended on where the Crew was based. Dallas and New York Crews were great, Chicago was hit-or-miss, and LA and Miami Crews were universally awful – even Internationally. One of the most miserable flights I ever had was on a 777 in First with a Miami based Crew that disappeared after the meal service and kept the cabin at a roasting temperature for 8 hours. I have been even less impressed with Delta – though I never reached the Elite status that you have with them. Your postings on Delta flights are great and you are a great Ambassador for them. Maybe I will give them another chance as they fly to Tokyo, Amsterdam, and Heathrow from PDX. I am not one of these DYKWIA (Don’t you know who I am) FC passengers but I had a flight on Delta in First from MSP-Anchorage about 6 months ago that was so awful that I did complain and received 25,000 bonus miles + a $1000 DL voucher. Now I usually fly Virgin America and Alaska. Virgin is clearly the best domestic First. Have you ever flown them ? Alaska isn’t bad and is the largest carrier out of PDX. Anyhow, that’s my opinion and keep the videos coming. If you ever come to Portland, I would love to meet for a drink and conversation from one Road Warrier to another. Cheers – G

    • Traveller says:

      Gregg,

      Sorry! I’m just now seeing your comment. Not sure how I missed it. I haven’t flown with Virgin America and I’m sorry I won’t get the chance. Hopefully the merger will be a good thing…time will tell. In the meantime, thanks for watching and “see you in the sky!”

      Jeb

  14. Kirsten says:

    Came here after seeing one of your trip reports on YouTube – I love your videos! My mom has been a Delta flight attendant for over 40 years and I loved reading this post to learn a bit more about how everything works from the agent’s point of view. Cheers!

  15. Bill says:

    Thanks for giving back to the industry, Jeb.

    Your videos are really awesome!

  16. Dianne W says:

    I worked for Continental way back in the golden era. We assigned seats at the gate by pulling little seat number stickers off a page and pressing them onto boarding passes, it used to be a real headache when the upline agent didn’t send the “throughs” correctly. And then there were the flights with “spinners,” people who found someone else in their seat on a full flight and they would spin around in the aisle looking for somewhere to sit. Those were the days.

    Four years of working counter and gates did me in. There was so much conflict with upset passengers, sometimes it got so bad people waiting in the lines at counters would call out the person yelling at me. My theory is most people have hidden fears of flying, so they’re very easily upset. Four years of screamers was enough and I took alternative career paths.

    I later went on to work at a major tech company and collected so many United miles that I’m still redeeming them for world business class trips today (30 years later).

    Really enjoyed your story about your day in ATL, you got the royal experience for sure.

  1. September 2, 2017

    […] Jeb, who runs OutOfPlace.com got the chance to be a Delta gate agent for a day. Yep, he willingly took on this job! If you have […]

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