Steven Klamon flies on Delta Air Lines enough that he's watched a lot of its gate agents juggle routine tasks with thorny passenger problems.
But it was still quite an eye-opener when, along with some other frequent fliers, he recently got a chance to stand in an agent's shoes during a visit to Delta's Atlanta operations.
"Common courtesy. . . I don't know why they call it common. It wasn't common at a lot of gates that I saw," Klamon said. "Some people just need to take a deep breath."
As the Christmas travel rush starts this week, Delta's 9,800 gate agents -- including 1,800 at its mammoth Atlanta hub -- will be on the front lines of the airline's battle to smoothly process holiday passenger loads. And they'll bear the brunt of flier frustration when inevitable problems crop up.
Agents work six to 12 flights in a typical shift, each one requiring myriad tasks that range from routine seat assignments and boarding calls to last-minute decisions about which desperate standby passengers make it onto a flight. They make sure catering gets done, send passenger data to dispatchers and scan boarding passes.
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"It's a lot going on in a short amount of time," said 25-year veteran gate agent David Gordon, 51. "The clock is always ticking."
Passengers often beseech agents as if they were some Higher Power that can make everything right. Klamon said he found it interesting how many passengers "feel they're entitled to an upgrade."
"Clearly for Delta in Atlanta, everybody's always trying to game the system," he said.
In fact, agents have less discretion than many imagine. The list of passengers eligible for upgrades, for instance, is automatically compiled into an order based on travelers' frequent flier status and other factors, and gate agents must have a good reason to bypass it. A passenger with a cast might get a bulkhead seat for more space, for example, but sweet-talking your way into first-class is far less likely.
On flights out of Atlanta, there are often many more elite frequent fliers on a flight than there are first-class seats.
Gate agents "know the loyalty status of every person on that plane," said Delta spokeswoman Chris Kelly. "They are well-trained to ensure that our best customers are first in line for first-class upgrades."
Klamon also was struck by how much passengers influence the boarding process. If people crowd edgily around the jetway entrance and try to board out of group, it prolongs the process. Likewise, trying to sneak oversized carryons aboard to avoid baggage fees can slow things down.
“As passengers, we have a responsibility to get that flight out on time,” Klamon said. “You really don’t see that until you’re on the other side of the podium.”
For Gordon, a Delta gate agent under five CEOs, it's the last 10 minutes before departure that pose the biggest challenge. Weather delays and late-arriving connecting flights add to a laundry list of tasks.
"That's when you get people missing flights and trying to get on the next flight, but the next flight is overbooked," Gordon said. But negotiating how to fill a handful of empty seats between a long list of missing passengers and stand-by passengers during the last few minutes of boarding can be one of the most difficult parts of a gate agent's job.
On the day of Klamon's visit, veteran Delta agent Marché Rembert handled one such situation. With 10 minutes to go she had a handful of open seats left on her outbound flight and a group of standby fliers eager to get them. But another group of connecting passengers hadn't yet made it to the gate.
"We're down to seven seats," Rembert said, studying the screen. Seven minutes before the scheduled departure time, she said the words the standby fliers were waiting to hear: "Y'all go ahead and board." The connecting passengers would have to be rebooked.
The standby fliers rushed down the jetway, and Rembert headed down soon after to give the final paperwork to the crew. After closing the aircraft door, Rembert confided that the last-minute juggle happens a lot, especially with flights on busy routes such as Atlanta-New York.
"You've got a lot of pass riders, people are missing, people want to get on, people don't want to separate," Rembert said. "That's when it can be very stressful."
Inevitably, emotions boil over during long delays or other snarls.
"Some passengers... they're going to vent," Gordon said. "I try to help everybody -- even the irates," he added, using the agents' term for very upset passengers.
The most frustrated passengers tend to be those who miss their flights and will be late for an important meeting, or who are traveling to see somebody who's ill, Rembert said.
When dealing with frustrated passengers, "I try to incorporate humor when I can," Rembert said. "You get a feel for whether the person feels like humor or not. I can pretty much tell right away; it depends on the situation."
Rembert said she tries not to take things personally, "even when they come up to me screaming or whatever. I try to look them straight in the eye and listen to them."
"I try to rectify the situation," she said. "You can't please everyone. You get people who say, ‘No matter what you say or do, I'll never fly Delta again.' And I say, ‘I'm sorry you feel that way. I hope you change your mind.'"
Rembert, who works a 5 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. shift, uses the employee shuttle ride to the parking lot to decompress from a busy morning on the concourses. "Once I leave and get on the Delta bus to go home," she said, "I leave it all behind."