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

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)

  1. 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 airport and for some reason the youngest and most apparently clueless of the attendants was the one working the elite line.

    Anyway, I asked to stand by for the earlier flights out of anchorage and that took probably a half hour and degenerated into that dude trying to convince me and my boss why it actually might cost $400 for Continental to change me from one flight to another showing a bunch of seats available and that I couldn’t stand by because there were no L tickets remaining available for the flights. That dude was mixing some serious BS into his kool-aid, which he had drunk fully. After about ten minutes I figured out he was getting me nowhere (took the remaining 20 to get away gracefully…), and my boss actually offered $200 as something like what we were willing to pay. I got my pass to get on the midnight flight, went to the gate, told the lady working there what I wanted to do, she clicked on her keyboard, said “$35”, and I was on the flights I wanted. From what I could tell, if I was already Gold (will be by the end of the month) it wouldn’t have even cost that.

    First moral of the story, CO essentially cost themselves $165. Second moral of the story, my travel agent was right when she said to just get to the gate agent; they can do anything. Corollary, avoid the clueless 20 year old dude…

    1. 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.

  2. 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 or changes, depending on the circumstances. Again, it’s in both our interests to get you to the gate with seat assignments — one less thing for both of us to deal with. But if I don’t have a game plan, I tell them I’ll be working the gate and will work out their seats requests there.

    Sometimes I say seat assignments are under gate control when check-in lines are long and/or those for security are too. My goal in this situation is just to get passengers up to the gate as quickly as possible. It’s in both my and the passenger’s interest to get him/her on that flight. The passenger doesn’t want to miss because of the extra five minutes it took to sort out his seat assignments, when the gate agent will already have done so by the time the passenger arrives at the gate.

    I don’t want the passenger to miss because then I have to rebook him. I could explain this, but in my experience, I still end up wasting precious minutes when I could be checking in more people, get them through security, and up to the gate to make their flight.

    Sounds callous, I know, and worse, to say it’s about pushing people through the system. But then, that’s what air travel has become: pushing people, bags, airplanes through the system.

    In DAB’s situation, the counter agent sounds clueless and didn’t know what he was talking about. Legacy carriers pretty much have the same standby policies: same-day standby for earlier/later flight is $x; same-day confirmed is $y. Fees waived for elite customers.

    1. 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 of confirmed passengers as overbookees, since this is the only way to generate a piece of paper the pax can take to TSA for screening. It’s one thing when it’s a small station, and the ticket agent can holler at the gate agent to release control for a second. It’s another thing when you’re dealing with the largest airport terminal in the world.

      CF is 100% right. The Air Carrier Access Act requires airlines who reserve seats for passengers with disabilities (such as the bulkheads) to leave them blocked until the day of departure, and generally the only people who can unblock them are either Res Control (who can give them to disabled pax) or the gate agent on the day of. Preferred seats (usually near the front or exit rows) can only be assigned to the precious metals until the day of, so they usually appear as “occupied” on airline website seat maps.

  3. 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. The Airline wants the plane out on time, that is the bottom line. When I was there, I tried as best I could to honor seat change requests, etc. but sometimes that just was not possible.

    The best advise I can give, is if you want a seat change/upgrade/oversold bump/ whatever…. is to get to the gate WAY ahead of time.

  4. 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 flight and was told there were 13 seats. I thne asked i f we could be put on stand by to change flights, I was told that Delta no longer did stand by, depit what the gate sign said. So i asked about just chnaging to this flight and i was quoted almost $300.00 for my ticket, the last leg on a round trip, and nearly $500 for my son as he was on the flist leg. I was then told this was Delta policy, nothing they could do. So needless to say the JFK flight went out with the empty seats, and they were overbooked on the late flight to lGA and had to pay two volunteers to get off the flight. I wrote to delta telling in detail our events and received a letter back saying oh well the agent was right. YOu should have paid…..and you wondered why they were in bankruptcy.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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, aisle if needed, bulk head seats for families, etc. Hard for some people to believe, but not everyone knew to ask for a seat assignment in advance.

    So asking to change seats day of flight might be something that can be done by these seats that are held for airport check-in. The best thing is to arrive early and be first in line at the check-in desk. Anyone running up to the gate at the last minute shouldn’t expect to have a better seat open to change to.

    And I will tell you, the nicer you are the better your chance is of changing seats. The shall we say ‘un-nicer’ you are to the agent the more they will put you in a middle seat even if an aisle or window is available. I’ve did that and so did others. Just like if you checked bag didn’t make it to your destination, it could be because you were a pompus a-hole at the desk and the ticket agent ‘forgot’ (wink wink) to put your bag on the belt in time to make your flight. Or in the old days, put the wrong tag on your bag (remember those colored destination bag tags).

    Remember your seat assignment and you checked bag going to the right place can be decided on how you act to the agent you are standing in front of or talking to on the phone.

    1. 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. :)

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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 more difficult post-9/11 was that I often ended up working 200 seat planes alone. It was always a challenge since flights were rarely under 80 percent full. While it was always good to know you had it in you to send off a full flight on-time it was a heck of a stress out when things did not go smoothly.

    I’m with a different airline now, sort of a socialist all-coach carrier. No elite tiers, no upgrade lists, no disappointments waiting on an upgrade that didn’t come through and grumbling because overhead bin space would be full when you made it to the aircraft. We have very few seat issues to resolve at the gate and departures really go much more smoothly. Also, if you fail to make it to your flight and don’t cancel, you’ve purchased that empty seat that left without you.

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