Gate Agent Reveals Travel Secrets Former United employee Jason Maclean, who spent nine years working as a gate attendant, explains how to avoid getting stuck at the airport this holiday season.
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Gate Agent Reveals Travel Secrets

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Gate Agent Reveals Travel Secrets

Gate Agent Reveals Travel Secrets

Gate Agent Reveals Travel Secrets

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Former United employee Jason Maclean, who spent nine years working as a gate attendant, explains how to avoid getting stuck at the airport this holiday season.

ALISON STEWART, host:

All right. So you've heard some of the problems and you've been involved in these situation. You've seen it happen. Maybe it has happened to you. You're there at the ticket counter in the airport, going toe to toe, eyeball to eyeball, with that agent and know in your heart that person could get you out of that middle seat.

Well, standby and on to the flight. If you just knew the secret code or the right thing to say. Well, with an expected 47 million people traveling from last Thursday - the period from last Thursday to January 2nd, that's a lot of people making a lot of demands on the fine representatives from fill in the blank airlines.

Now, since tomorrow is expected to be one of the peak travel times, we thought we'd check in to someone who has been on the frontlines. Jason Maclean spent nine years working for United as a gate attendant and a first class concierge so he has seen the best of times and the worse of times.

Hi, Jason.

Mr. JASON MACLEAN (Gate Attendant, United Airlines): Hi. How are you?

STEWART: I'm doing great. So let me - I'm going to get to the nuts and bolts of it. What works with an agent to, say, to get off that standby list and on to a flight? How much power does he or she have to help me?

Mr. MACLEAN: Well, it depends on - I'd say the nature of the crisis and who the passenger is. Sometimes if you're on a standby list or if you're in the middle seat, the right excuse can do a little bit a good. But when you're asking for something like an upgrade that's a little harder but, really, the bad news is that the airlines tend to accommodate their most frequent flyers much more readily. A priority standby can probably produce results if it wasn't cause -if it was a situation not caused by the costumer but by the airline. That tends to help you get off standby but…

STEWART: So do you mean you guys have a list back there about, well, Mr. Crassly(ph)…

Mr. MACLEAN: Yeah.

STEWART: …who is more important than the other people in the lounge?

Mr. MACLEAN: Yeah. But ranking customers in order of importance is extremely easy. It's first done by level of status and they're on - most airlines frequent flyer programs have a variety of levels. And after that, within each category, they rank them by fare pay or fare pay basis code. So you can be very discriminatory in that sense in favor of the dollars.

STEWART: Let me tell you a story that one of our reporters told us and then you can tell us if this is a little piece of urban legend or this actually might be true. One of our reporters - their mom went up to the gate and she has some trouble…

Mr. MACLEAN: Okay.

STEWART: …and they fixed it right away. The mom said I don't mean to look a gift horse in the mouth, but why are you being so nice to me? And, apparently, there was a note next to her name was that this person is very nice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MACLEAN: That's a hard one to say. What was - do you happen to know what it was that she did?

STEWART: Well, no. I don't know. But, apparently, the gate agent had some sort of information that this passenger was a nice passenger. This was somebody…

Mr. MACLEAN: Yeah.

STEWART: Does that exist?

Mr. MACLEAN: Yeah. That could very easily exist. Let's say, for example, the gate is a little more hectic. But at the ticket counter, agents tend to have a little bit more time to make nice and nice chat with the customers. And so there could have been some sort of, you know, very brief connection two or three minutes during the check in process. And probably without the passenger, attempting to do so there are some sort of empathy or whatever happened and so the ticket counter person can make a call.

STEWART: Interesting.

Mr. MACLEAN: For example, if it's an overbooked flight and, you know, there's 110 people booked for 100 seats and that one person didn't have a seat assignment but the ticket agent like that passenger, ticket agent might call and say please help this lady. You know, she's got to do this and everything. Then the gate agent never makes a promise but it's - I'll do what I can.

STEWART: It is possible.

Mr. MACLEAN: It's a very much a gray area. There's a lot of gray areas out there.

BILL WOLFF, host:

Do you get more bees with honey or vinegar? That is to say, should I go in there and say, sir, I know you're having a hard day but could you please help me or should I go in there and say, do you know who my wife is?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MACLEAN: Yeah. I would say that these days, airline agents are so jaded that - and they're so tired of people. Generally, it depends on the agents, of course, but the vinegar approach rarely works. I'd say - and too much honey doesn't work either because they're jaded enough to have seen through that. So I it's the middle ground that tends to help the most. No one wants a whiner and no one wants a butt-kisser either, so.

WOLFF: In New York City and in Las Vegas, Nevada…

Mr. MACLEAN: Uh-huh.

WOLFF: …in all seriousness, a $20 bill or $40 will really get it done. If you're parking your car and you want it back quick, you give the guy 40 bucks. You'll be the first car.

Mr. MACLEAN: No.

WOLFF: Will cash transactions work at airline gates?

Mr. MACLEAN: Approved cash transactions, but if you're talking about…

WOLFF: I'm talking about graft. I'm talking about bribes.

Mr. MACLEAN: Greasing the palms.

WOLFF: Yeah.

Mr. MACLEAN: No.

WOLFF: Doesn't work?

Mr. MACLEAN: I've never seen it and I've certainly spent a lot of time at ticket counter agents. The most that I ever had anybody try to do for me is when they're already accommodated, people go get me a bottle of water or a coffee and that would happen, I guess, about three or four times a year and usually right around this time of the year too.

WOLFF: I bet.

STEWART: I have a question. When you're at the agent - at the counter, and you see an agent back there just banging the way on the keyboard, typing all kinds of numbers. What are you doing?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MACLEAN: Well, if there were just a conflict and they are probably writing a long report about that particular passenger in case they get reported later, but…

STEWART: Oh, that's interesting. So you guys have to do a little CYA sometimes when you have an irate passenger.

WOLFF: Yeah.

Mr. MACLEAN: Oh, yes. Absolutely. There are some of that. But, generally, if you see a lot typing going on, it's more going through the menus of the various things that a gate agent is charged with. Sort of keeping track of and that's -the who's coming in from what flight. It's…

STEWART: The business of the day, basically.

Mr. MACLEAN: Yeah. If there are seat changes.

STEWART: (Unintelligible).

Mr. MACLEAN: There's a lot of seat changes to be made, upgrades and things like that. There's a lot of things to do in this computer systems and not all agent knows at all but there's a lot out there.

STEWART: I can tell from the typing.

Jason Maclean, former a United gate and ticket agent. Thanks for filling us in on a couple of the secrets.

Mr. MACLEAN: My pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: That does it for this edition of THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT for this Thursday morning. Thanks so much for listening. Join us online at npr.org/bryantpark.

I'm Alison Stewart. Thanks, Bill Wolff.

WOLFF: Alison Stewart, you're more than welcome.

STEWART: And tomorrow we'll have another guest host.

This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

STEWART: You're good, honey.

WOLFF: Thanks, babe.

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