My husband, Bruce, experienced a day as a Delta gate agent in Atlanta. He shares his experience with us here. At the end of the post, I’ll tell my part of the story and show you who he was with on our wedding anniversary!
Rolling out of bed at 3:30 am, it was way too early to get even a cup of coffee in the hotel lounge. But I was ready to run. Thanks to Delta Air Lines and Flyertalk, I was going to be an airline gate agent for the day, one of a group that has been looking forward to this day for months.
Hours before daybreak, we boarded the hotel shuttle bus and headed to Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta, Delta’s headquarters. Wearing our temporary Delta badges, we were whisked through the short TSA line for employees. Oh how I wish this badge was permanent!
Once in the T (Tango) terminal, we walked the secret behind-the-scenes path to our meeting room for the morning briefing. Each of us was paired with an experienced gate agent or Red Coat, Delta’s premier on-the-floor service providers. I was assigned to Tamika. Trust me, it was my lucky day.
My gate was in the terminal known to insiders as Bravo South, one of the busiest. We would be working Bravo 4, what the public sees as gate B4. Tamika quickly got everything set up because she knew a flight from Newark would be arriving shortly.
A few minutes later, she said, “The plane is here.” I still don’t know how she knew that. We had no windows and I heard only a faint sound of what was probably an aircraft outside. Chalk that up to experience, I guess.
For arriving aircraft, it is the gate agent’s responsibility to drive the jetway to the plane. With experience as a ramper (airline ground crew) and former tug driver [the tug is that golf cart looking thing that actually pushes the huge aircraft back from the gate], Tamika operated the jetway flawlessly until it reached the plane. Then she opened the 1L door and quickly ran back up the ramp to meet the arriving passengers.
I shadowed her during all this but wasn’t allowed to operate the jetway. The reason, one small mistake could do serious damage to the plane. As Tamika explained: If that happens, they just hand you a cup and give you the day off pending results. Ah ha, best to leave jetway driving to the experts.
Now my work began. As an experienced flyer and frequent visitor to Atlanta, it was easy assisting passengers as they came off the plane. Most needed help finding their connecting gates but Delta made it easy by providing a flight information display screen just as passengers exited the jetway. Since many were asking about the same connecting flights, I memorized the gates quickly.
Others passengers needed directions to baggage claim, restrooms, and the SkyClub, Delta’s lounge. Again my familiarity with the airport was helpful. No doubt the passengers assumed I was just another Delta employee but really, there was no time to explain.
With all the passengers and crew off the plane, now my hard work would begin. In only a few minutes, we would fill the aircraft with another set of travelers.
Passengers were already lined up at the gate counter. Some inquired about changing seats so families could sit together, others wanted to know about their upgrade status, still more just wanted seat assignments while a few were trying to fly standby.
Here the multi-screen computer system behind the counter is quite helpful. Available seats are very easy to see and a simple drag-and-drop with a mouse can move passengers around with ease.
For upgrades to first class, however, there is a specific procedure and while it is easy to jump a passenger ahead of another on the list, this can come back to haunt a gate agent. Very simply, they value their jobs too much to make unilateral changes. Well, at least that is true here. I can’t comment on other airlines.
Boarding is supposed to begin at T-30 (thirty minutes before departure) but we had a delay. There were some maintenance issues with the aircraft but no way to know how long they may take to resolve. Boarding was suspended and everyone left waiting.
Finally at nearly T-20, we began pre-flight boarding for passengers in wheel chairs, families with very young children, and others needing assistance or extra time to board. This was quickly followed by Premium boarding, passengers in first class.
Now about T-15, we boarded coach class seats, beginning with Zone 1 and continuing through Zone 4. I scanned the boarding passes but learned I was too slow. In part it was because I was speaking with each passenger – saying good morning, thanks for flying Delta, etc – and in part because of surprise how many did not have seat assignments already.
Another delay in boarding was because every passenger sitting in an exit row seat has to be asked if they are okay with that and familiar with the rules. The flight attendants also ask this once everyone is onboard but rules require that passengers are asked by both gate agents and flight attendants. Time consuming but deemed to be a necessary safety procedure.
Tamika was watching the clock at every minute. As the gate agent, she is responsible for getting the plane out on time so the clock is her primary enemy. Any delays, she gets written up for it and has to provide an explanation. Yes, they are very serious about on-time departures.
After the final boarding pass was scanned, the jetway was totally clogged but Tamika knew what to do. Asking passengers to move to the right, she skirted down the left side of the jetway to speak with the flight attendants about available overhead compartment space. It looked like some bags would have to be gate checked.
With tags already in hand, Tamika began completing them for a few passengers. The ground crew would place those bags in a special compartment in the underside of the aircraft. Most important, the passengers were onboard at the magic moment of T-5.
Tamika completed the paperwork, delivered it to the flight deck, and closed the boarding door at T-3, the goal of every flight. With a deep sigh, she brought the jetway back from the plane and we walked up the ramp to await our next arrival aircraft. All I could do was shake my head in awe.
And so it went throughout the shift. We worked nearly five hours – on our feet the entire time – without even a potty break. Funny, it felt like only about an hour and I never did get my coffee, much less any breakfast.
I am sure it was just another long morning for Tamika but as much as my feet hurt, I could have gone another twelve hours. Adrenaline is a wonderful thing sometimes.
Between passengers, Tamika taught me so much about the gate agent role. She answered all my questions as time permitted but I finished the shift with dozens more unanswered. Like so many of my peers, I really wanted to go back and do it again. And again. And again.
The days in Atlanta flew by (sorry about that pun). Thanks to Delta, we also had the opportunity to meet with their top executives, fly in their flight simulators, had two days of training to experience some of the role of flight attendants and emergency procedures, and tours of virtually all their facilities including the control towers.
Like all flying passengers, I go to the airport, wait in endless and sometimes humiliating TSA lines, then head to my gate. I fly from point A to point B, thinking little about anything other than arriving at my destination on time.
But sometimes there is a disconnect between passenger expectations and an airline’s ability to deliver. I have suffered through many delayed and canceled flights and can appreciate how unnerving this can be when it means missing an important event.
However, I also know safety is the airline’s number one concern. No airline wants to disappoint passengers with flight delays – remember, it cost them lots of money – but under no circumstance will any airline sacrifice safety for speed. They would much rather deal with customer complaints than customer injuries.
Only a few days removed from my experience, I am ready to go back. My real-world business trek next week will take me through the Southern capital once again but I will allow additional time for my connecting flight. I now have friends – no, make that family – at ATL.
Next time you fly, think about some of these things. It will help you get through some of the stress and make you a better passenger. I know I will be a better passenger for what I learned.
Many thanks to Delta and my friends at Flyertalk for this incredible opportunity. It truly was a most memorable event that will remain in my mind forever.
Back to Carol again.
Our wedding anniversary happened to be during this Delta Airlines / FlyerTalk event. Though we both would have liked to be together on this occasion, I was just wrapping up a business trip while Bruce had just begun this event in Atlanta. As much as he and I like to travel, this was an excellent opportunity for him. Our anniversary could easily be celebrated a few days later.
But look who he spent time with on our anniversary day – Katherine Lee (aka Deltalina)! If you fly Delta, you will immediately recognize her. She’s the finger-wagging flight attendant who broadcasts the safety video at the beginning of each flight.
Some spouses might be jealous but I know my husband was having the time of his life at this event. I was happy to share him with Deltalina and 100 flight-addicts!
Just don’t let it happen again next year, Dear!!