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Confessions of ... an airline agent

When it comes to flight changes and delays, our confessor tells us, "sometimes the agent is the last one to know."

Our anonymous confessor has worked as both a ticket agent and a departure-gate agent for a major airline. He has since left the industry.

No training
New airline ticket and departure-gate agents are hard to find these days. Not only are the wages awful, but flying for free — the one perk of the job — is becoming virtually impossible because planes are always packed with paying customers. To save money, many airlines also aren't giving new employees the same job training they once received, leaving inexperienced agents on the front line to deal with passenger complaints. Once, on a trip I took after I had stopped working as a ticket agent, I had to show a new hire where to look in the system to find my reservation — she had no idea what she was doing.

Cut off
The airline I worked for had a very antiquated computer system. We had about a dozen operating systems in the company. There were separate systems for mapping flight routes, filing lost-luggage claims, and keeping track of reservations — but not all of them could relay data to each other. To top it all off, the computers at the departure gates didn't have Internet access. The popular belief among disgruntled travelers that gate agents purposely keep passengers in the dark about flight delays isn't really true — sometimes the agent is the last one to know what's going on.

Good behavior
It used to be that if you tried a little smooth talking or even brought a cookie to the gate agent, you might be able to score an upgrade. Not anymore. Because the airlines are increasingly focused on the bottom line, free upgrades are incredibly hard to come by. Still, it pays to be nice to the agents: After a few kind words, they may go out of their way to reroute you on a partner airline if your flight is delayed. I turned on the charm myself one time when I was facing a long delay on the way to the Caribbean. Smiling politely, I went to a partner airline's ticket counter and asked the agent to please reroute me. Several hours later, I was lying on the beach, sipping a tropical drink.

Personal info
Ticket agents are always updating Passenger Name Records, or PNRs — these computer files, which contain basic details on passengers' trips, are accessible to most agents at check-in counters and departure gates. Agents generally use PNRs to record special requests by passengers, but sometimes they also comment on a person's behavior. A friend of mine discovered this after she had a heated argument with a ticket agent about getting an upgrade on a flight to London. When she reached her gate and inquired again, the agent remarked on her "inappropriate behavior" at check-in, and my friend was stuck with her economy-class seat. The details in PNRs are also fodder for airline-employee gossip, especially when shocking behavior is involved. Passengers once complained about a woman breast-feeding her Chihuahua (I kid you not) on board a flight, and an airport supervisor in the arrival city put the incident in her PNR. Within hours, a gate agent came upon the PNR and shared it with countless other agents across the country. In fact, my former colleagues and I still talk about it to this day!