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In interviews with ticket agents, airline employees and travelers, columnist Christopher Elliott has learned that ticket agents can punish problem passengers in a variety of ways, often without anyone even knowing it.
By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/1/2007 9:56:05 AM ET 2007-10-01T13:56:05

Be nice to your ticket agent. Otherwise you could end up like Barbara Arbani.

Arbani is a frequent flier who runs a bed and breakfast in New Hope, Pa., and she’s a self-described “innocuous-looking grandmother.” But that’s not how a US Airways ticket agent in Philadelphia apparently saw her.

After a polite disagreement with the airline employee about her seat assignments, Arbani found herself being sent to a special Transportation Security Administration screening area as a “selectee,” courtesy of the agent. “Didn’t know airline employees got their jabs in when they could,” she says.

Do they ever.

In interviews with ticket agents, airline employees and travelers, I’ve learned that ticket agents can punish problem passengers in a variety of ways, often without anyone even knowing it. They can exact their revenge on travelers by bumping them off flights, forcing them to check more luggage or, in Arbani’s case, sending them to a security line for a once-over from the TSA.

That’s not to suggest that America’s airports are staffed by vindictive airline employees. Despite their industry’s recent turbulence, most airline workers are professionals who wouldn’t think of abusing their position. But you never know when you’re going to meet a rogue agent — or when you might rub an otherwise law-abiding airline employee the wrong way, incurring that person’s quiet wrath.

Here are four ways ticket agents take it out on you — and how to make sure they don’t get away with it:

Congratulations, you’re a selectee. Here’s what happened to Arbani: When she checked in at the counter, she made the mistake of asking the agent if there were any seats closer to the front of the aircraft. “The agent had been speaking with a co-worker,” she remembers. “It was just a social conversation, not work-related, and she felt we had interrupted her.” Irritated, the agent arbitrarily picked two random seats up front, but Arbani didn’t like them and asked to be moved back.

“The agent then harrumphed, rolled her eyes at her co-worker, and reprinted the original seat,” says Arbani. But these boarding passes were different. These had a line of red Ss stamped across the top, indicating they would have to undergo a secondary screening at the TSA checkpoint. A TSA agent later confirmed that it was the miffed agent who designated her a selectee. “This sometimes happens,” he told her. (Asked about this, US Airways spokeswoman Andrea Rader said ticket agents, “wouldn’t do this, for all the reasons you might imagine, [and] primarily because the security system is for security, not other matters.”)

How to get around it? Don’t even try. The agents may think they’re punishing you, but they could be doing you a favor. Sometimes, the line for selectees moves faster than the regular line.

How about a seat next to the bathroom? If you thought you had a good seat assignment, think again. Ticket agents can reassign you to another, less desirable, seat if you give them a good enough reason. You might end up in a dreaded middle seat, or a seat near the back of the plane by the lavatory. Nancy Miller, a former airline ticket agent who lives in San Francisco, says it’s a favorite tactic of her trade. That’s because it’s difficult to prove a passenger was moved for the wrong reasons. The only time an agent gets in trouble is when a displaced traveler is either “very angry or very important,” she says, which isn’t often.

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She’s seen a seating showdown from both sides of the counter. On a recent flight, she caught a ticket agent attaching the wrong tag to her checked-in luggage, which would have sent her belongings to another airport. Miller politely corrected the agent. Then she asked for an aisle seat. The ticket agent claimed there were none. Which was wrong. Once she arrived at the gate, Miller learned there were plenty of free aisle seats. “The idea that someone completely incompetent and vindictive has any power at all is very scary,” she adds.

How to get around it? If a ticket agent moves you into an undesirable seat for what you believe is the wrong reason, either ask for a supervisor or see if you can be moved to a better seat when you arrive at the gate.

Where do you think you’re going with that? Ticket agents can also inflict pain on problem passengers by enforcing rules as rigidly as possible. One common example is to force difficult travelers to squeeze their carry-ons in the sizing box at the counter. “And they usually succeed when it is placed standing upright on all wheels,” says one ticket agent. “But will that suffice? Of course not. It must lie on its side, which usually never works out for the customer.” The unfortunate traveler is then compelled to check in a bag that often contains valuables or electronics, which the airline won’t pay for if it’s damaged or lost.

There are several variations of this strategy, which fall under the broader category of “luggage shenanigans.” A ticket agent can incorrectly tag your bag, sending it to the wrong airport and possibly losing it forever. An agent can also rigidly enforce weight limits, making you pay extra fees for your belongings. Ellen Simonetti, a former Delta Air Lines flight attendant who writes the Queen of the Sky blog, says it’s easy to understand why ticket agents resort to these tactics. There’s a sense of powerlessness in the ranks of ticket agents, and these tricks are often their only effective outlet for their frustrations. “It’s a really crummy job,” she says. “So I guess they have to get their revenge once in a while.”

How to get around it: Pack light and check that tag before handing your checked-in luggage to the TSA. Otherwise, you may never see it again.

You’re off the flight. This is an extreme form of punishment, but not as uncommon as you would expect. “My airline actually tells its agents and supervisors to scan the gate areas for passengers with too many carry-ons, oversized luggage, oversized passengers and anyone who looks inebriated — which, if you’ve flown lately, could be half of the flight,” says one ticket agent for a major airline, who asked that I not use his name. If you’re argumentative and have had just one drink, that’s enough reason for a ticket agent to recommend you take the next flight, even if that means waiting until the next day. “Some folks take it to the extreme and get quite a kick out of denying someone boarding for the smallest of things,” he says.

How to get around it? My ticket agent source says other than flying stone-cold sober, you should make sure you’re within standards. Don’t carry too much or try to check baggage that’s too big or heavy. And be kind. It takes the wind right out of a renegade agent’s metaphorical sails.

Airlines say this type of agent behavior is not tolerated, of course. “Our airport agents at the ticket counter and the gate are our frontline of customer service,” Tim Wagner, a spokesman for American Airlines, told me. “They are trained to deal with customers and their needs, and they have policies and procedures they must follow in many situations.” What’s more, he added, the methods I describe for agents to get back at passengers have “strictly detailed policies” that are meant to prevent any kind of abuse.

I think most ticket agents do their jobs by the book, just like Wagner says. But I’ve run into renegade employees a time or two in my travels, and I also know that if they want to stick it to us, they can. And they can get away with it.

Every Monday, my column takes a close look at what makes the travel business tick. Your comments are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, drop by my blog for daily insights into the world of travel.

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