Why Can Only Gate Agents Change My Seat? (Ask Cranky)

In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m working on clearing out some of the Ask Cranky question that have been piling up for awhile here. This is a great question that has probably confused people for ages. I’ll give my best answer, but I encourage customer service reps to chime in if things are different at their airline.

When I get saddled with a middle seat on a transatlantic or other long flight, my 6 foot 1 inch, 225 pound frame starts to ache before I even go through security. When I beg at check-in for a better seat assignment, why are they powerless? They always tell me to see the “gate agent” which, sometimes, is the exact same person. Is it because once the flight has closed they will have a better sense of what they can do?

Derrick M

There can be a couple of reasons why a ticket counter agent would push you off to the gate agent, one sensible and one obnoxious. Fortunately, the sensible one is far more likely.

Just think about what goes into getting a flight out from the perspective of a gate agent. Up until the day of the flight, some people have chosen seats Ask Crankywhile others have not. Airlines will usually hold back a chunk of seats for the day of departure anyway, so many people can’t get seats in advance even if they tried. Then of course there are the seats that are held back for elite members. Those same elite members are likely to get upgraded, so the seats in coach can become available when they get moved up to the pointy end up of the plane.

There are a lot of moving parts, so to help control the chaos as departure nears, the airline will put these flights “under airport control.” This prevents all different kinds of people from sticking their fingers in and making life difficult for the agents who actually have to get the flight out of the gate. So when you get to the gate, there are a lot of different things going on. Upgrades will be cleared and gate agents will try to help families sit together who have been split apart, for example. Then there are just the people who want to sit in a different seat from what they already have assigned. It can be a gigantic puzzle that’s difficult in its own right.

Now imagine trying to solve that puzzle while it’s in motion. Yeah, that sucks. So when the gate agents take control of a flight, they have the ability to make changes without worrying about others poking their noses in there as well. And that’s the sensible reason for having you talk to the gate agent.

What’s the obnoxious reason? There might not be any good seats left and if the agent is having a bad day, he might just want to push you off on someone else so he doesn’t have to deal with it. Yes, that does happen from time to time, but the sensible reason is far more likely.

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18 Comments on "Why Can Only Gate Agents Change My Seat? (Ask Cranky)"

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DAB
Guest
I have one better. I am (currently, sitting in the Presidents club…) traveling on the most restricted class of ticket there is for CO, which of course I had no way of knowing until after I booked (and probably wouldn’t have made a difference travel budgets being what they are). There are two possibilities to get back to the lower 48 from Anchorage, and I wanted to jump from the midnight departure up to the 5pm. Our travel agent couldn’t do anything for less than like $600 and advised me to go to the gate agent. I went to the… Read more »
A
Guest

You can always fly WN and elbow and push your way to the seat you want.

Xnuiem
Member

Or make sure you are in A group, then be 6’4″ 235 and fake a cough, bloodshot eyes, and wear a shirt that says “Ebola Research Team, CDC Con 2009”. Then just sit in the row you want, and enjoy two seats for the price of one.

airjunkie
Guest
As an airline agent, I can say giving the reason of “airport” or “gate control” is almost always true. Most of the time when an agent says it, it’s for the very reasons Cranky indicates. The saying at my station is “too many cooks spoil the soup.” So only one gate agent is responsible for clearing the lists for upgrades, seat assignments, & standbys. Another “cook” getting involved can quickly ruin the “soup” of clearing these lists. If I’m on counter and will be running the gate for a flight someone’s checking in for, I will do their seat assignments… Read more »
scott.wintner
Member

A GA after my own heart. :) You are so right.

JamesK
Guest
I can definitely make the devil’s advocate argument against gate control. Agents at a large airline based in ATL have been taking gate control earlier and earlier, and the system is programmed to allow the agent to do so several hours prior to departure. Problem with it is that now the passenger, who is checking in within the cutoff guidelines, gets a message from the kiosk stating “Unable to check in, please see agent”. After the pax gets in the Kiosk Assist line, the agent now has to delete the seat assignment and place the pax on the same waitlist… Read more »
exgateagt
Guest
As my moniker above, I am a former gate agent for a very large Airline based in ATL (well, guess who). I left in 1991, but still a lot of the system remains. The gate agent is God (at least back in those days) and controls the seats, upgrades, no-shows, late flights with misconnects, etc. He/She must have that flexibility they don’t have at the ticket counter, to shift things around as need be. The big thing with the gate agent(s) is to get the flight out on time, often they are so busy, a lot of requests are forgotten.… Read more »
jr
Member
Several years ago I was in Charlestown SC, with my son USNavy, active duty and in uniform, we were booked on a late afternoon flight to LGA, we arrived at the airport quite early as the military let there men go earlier than anticipated. We we asked about an earlier flight, we were told to go to the gate and ask the gate agent for the earlier flight to New York, whihc was going to JFK and not LGA, this was also alot closer to home. When we arrived at the gate, I first asked about the loads on the… Read more »
exgateagt
Guest

Another good reason to never fly Delta. This is normal operating procedure for this airline. No empathy whatsoever.

tking18
Guest

Well, that’s not really Delta’s fault. You bought a ticket to fly to LGA, so they are responsible to get you to LGA. YOU booked the ticket to there. The airline’s not just going to allow you to switch to an earlier flight to a different destination for free–no airline that I know of does this. It would cause too much chaos.

gregjackson7
Member

Why would it cause so much chaos? I was a gate agent for a large airline out of RDU and it took only 2 extra minutes to change someone’s PNR. I left the airlines because it most employees think helping the customer is too hard. I do agree that at the gate you are in a time crunch sometimes, but out of CHS to the NY area is only an RJ of no more than 50 pax is probably not too hard to manage.

clip
Guest

All I can say is that you (Cranky) have hit it right on. As an old old gate agent (remember when your seat number was scribbled on your ticket envelop?) …the gate is where it all comes together, or falls apart…upgrades, per-boards, standbys, oh yes and who could forget Oversales. It is almost as much fun to watch as the plate spinners on the Ed Sullivan show. Nevertheless, bottom line is if you have seating or standby problems go to the gate.

jr
Member

gotta fly jetblue more often no need to upgrade seats and they dont overbook.

David SF eastbay
Member
When I worked for TWA seats were blocked off for day of departure assignment only. You could see the seats blocked off on a seat map and they covered all types of seats. Back then emergency exit rows were blocked off so the gate agent to see the person and know they were fit to be seated there. Unlike today where anyone is put there and the F/A’s have to play seat monitors while the plane is boarding. The other seats held were so the airline had some control to assign people who didn’t have a seat assignment seats together,… Read more »
Kate
Guest

I kept a list of crying or potentially cranky kids, and assigned the ‘un-nicer’ people as close to them as possible. The nearness was porportional to their nastiness to me. I was always unfailing polite to them, though, as I assigned them that seat. :)

exgateagt
Guest

Responding to the previous post:

There are three people in the world you do not want to p*** off.

1. Police Officers
2. Judges
3. Airline Gate Agents

I was #3. When I was there, I was God at the Gate.

Pooh32828
Guest

Along with all of Cranky’s reasons, on my formally based IAH now ORD based airline, held seats are not released until 20 minutes before departure. Someone without bags could check in that close to departure for a domestic flight, so we have to hold them right up to that mark.

SFOBear
Guest
Yeah, a lot of stuff ultimately gets resolved at the gate. I was with UA for about 20 years and gate process improved enough to at least release “no show” seats (or the seats that belonged to the poor slobs who got hosed in the chaos in the lobby and never made it to the counter in time) 30 minutes to departure. That was when sorting out the list of those waiting for seats, upgrades, seat changes, economy plus and finally stand-bys if they were fortunate, or advising folks you are out of seats and need volunteers. What made it… Read more »
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