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?
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 while 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.