Always Be Nice To Your Gate Agent, So Unpleasant Things Don’t Happen

There’s plenty going wrong with summer travel. It’s frustrating for passengers, but it’s frustrating for employees too. Airlines are short-staffed. With flights full they don’t have extra seats to put passengers into. Lines are long. And tempers are short.

You’ll do much better if you’re nice to the employees you interact with than if you have a short fuse.

  • Remember that whatever has happened to you, it’s very likely not the fault of whomever you’re speaking to

  • Think of them as a person, not as the embodiment of the airline

  • They can choose to help you, or they can choose not to help you. Which do you want them to do?

Being nice is in your best interest. I thought of this when I saw the story of a passenger who was trying to make a connecting flight after her inbound aircraft was delayed.

She says she ran to the gate with her baby. Apparently she was traveling with other family members, the flight was about to close and she got into an argument with the gate agent. When she took a photo of the agent’s name tag, the agent instructed her colleague to close the door early. Another passenger arrived, they opened the door back up for that passenger.

Update: it appears the passenger has deleted video of the incident.

To the passenger, the gate agent’s insistent that she close the door on time and make sure that the flight departs – rather than delaying it a minute or two (or five or ten, she doesn’t know how long it will take for the rest of the family to arrive) – is just a decision that the gate agent can make. But it’s really not up to the agent. If they don’t depart exactly on time, if they don’t close that door, they’re going to get in trouble. (There are three and only three cases where gate agents are allowed to hold the boarding door for passengers.)

United Airlines has a program called Connection Saver where they’ll sometimes delay a flight to accommodate late-arriving passengers. They know that many of their flights are going to arrive early, so a few minutes’ delay won’t actually inconvenience anyone. That’s not always true, and they won’t always hold a flight, but they’re proactive. At American Airlines they have D0 – a focus on exact on-time departures (which they’ll still not super great at).

The airline employees you’re dealing with are people, who bring their own baggage with them. They may have gotten in trouble for holding a flight, or had a fight with their spouse. They have issues just like you do. They’re people.

It’s far better to joke with them. Empathize with them. Get them on your side. They might not be able to do exactly what you want, but they’ll be more inclined to help in other ways. Or they can make it not their problem.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Unless they’re Delta gate agents at ATL. 95% of them people hate every single passenger, regardless of how kind you try to be to them.

  2. THANK YOU for this! As a former ticket counter, gate, and ramp supervisor, thank you. It’s so much easier (and less drama) if everyone keeps their temper and treats each other politely.

    We are just as stressed, tired, and hungry as you are. I would gladly work with people who treated me (and my people) courteously and respectfully. Sometimes, I could even get the flight crews to give us an on time departure if we asked them and explained what happened. They would extend their taxi time by allowing us to push the plane back a few inches to fool ACARS. That way, ACARS would show “on time,” we could get those people on board and everyone won.

    To this day, when I’m traveling (no passes, that’s an ugly story not to be told here) I’ll drop a few snacks and cold sodas off for the gate agents. Especially when everything has gone to s–t, flights are delayed or cancelled, and tempers are high. I also tell them that I did their job for 20+ years and I truly sympathize with them.

    A little kindness and humanity goes a long way. Zen travel: kindness to all.

  3. Absolutely agree.

    AA cancelled the HNL – DFW flight 5 minutes prior to boarding. I immediately exited security because the line at the Admirals Club was so long.

    Stood back in line at the check in counter and I was the second to be called. I tried my best to be nice because I knew it wasn’t the agent’s fault. I was placed in the F cabin from LAX to JFK and even given a hotel voucher at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. Agent even made her colleague process the passenger behind me so she could confirm my hotel voucher PLUS taxi voucher.

    I not only gave her a $20 starbucks giftcard (thanks to your idea Gary), I even included another $20 for her to grab dinner in the gift card packet. That $40 was way worth more than paying for my own hotel in HNL.

  4. Basic rule of life – Treat people who can potentially solve your problem nicely, especially when others are making things tough on them. It’s also tough to think clearly when you’re in a rage. Save your anger for those who caused your problem or unreasonably didn’t give you any leeway – and even then, if your problem isn’t solved, just walk away and find someone who can.

    Can’t say I’ve always done that – I’ve raged at a Dish Network rep for 30 minutes after one of their software upgrades deleted all my DVR recorded programming. They absolutely wouldn’t accept responsibility, and I took my business to DirecTV for another 15 years. I’ve ranted at the worst rental car agency in the world (worse than Hertz), Green Motion, after they wouldn’t honor our reservation on a delayed flight, despite me calling it in and letting them know. I really should have walked away at that point and just gotten on my phone and rebooked with anyone but them, but they rented me a car at a ridiculous price, then, when we returned it, proceeded to find a bunch of dings and flaws that were were charged for – fortunately the credit card covered it, but it’s a known scam that’s written about. I did walk away from AA once when they denied us boarding for checking in one minute late on the first (domestic) leg of an international trip, but they offered to sell us the same flights for $3000 each. (They used us to solve their overbooking situation.) I was able to book within 30 minutes for the next day on Aer Lingus for less than $1000. And I’ve had many a gate or ticket agent fix a cancelled flight when I had a proposed solution up on my phone – they like that.

    That’s now my go to – get in line and have everyone start looking for different paths and/or call any phone number we can get our hands on and propose something calmly. If there’s a chance of a missed connection, I already have back-pocket solutions. Usually works. Screaming doesn’t, ever.

  5. Absolutely agree with Gregg B above. As a veteran gate agent myself the gate agent is the person you want on YOUR side. She or he can, more often then you would think, work magic when the situation calls for it and conversely find a lot of “full” airplanes when that personality is standing in front of her/him. Basically the gate agent can make your already bad day worse and you will never know how it happened. Be nice to the gate agent folks and enjoy the dividends you get. Remember we are all in this together

  6. It’s not only the gate agent’s decision. Late departures/arrivals get counted, and the department receives negative reviews/feedback if they are the responsible party. It all costs money. Or imagine it’s an international flight, and the late departure makes the FA’s/Pilots illegal to fly, then you have to wait until a reserve crew arrives. It all snowballs from there on.
    And, yes, the slightest kindness like a $20 Starbucks card works wonders for agents and FA’s alike. Sometimes, you get upgraded, sometimes to get extra attention, and sometimes you get pajamas from first class; it all depends. In any case, you won’t regret it.

  7. Not when gate agents make up their own rule and are already in a bad mood. Tried to gate check a car seat. Was on the same type of plane connecting in DFW and the AA gate agent said I had to check my car seat and pick it up with my other checked in bags at the carousel. Wouldn’t let me gate check it. Ridic how they decide to make their own rules up. Never ever had a problem before with my car seat until this time.

  8. I used to be familiar with an agent at the ticket counter of a smaller airport. She held the plane for me once. Later, the mainline airline came to town. I wrote her a recommendation letter. She was hired but probably not because of the letter. Previously, she worked for the commuter airline/regional airline that had the mainline airline’s name (Northwest Airlink).

  9. Being nasty to anyone is never appreciated – try to treat and work with people as you would like to be treated. It costs little and occasionally reaps rewards.

  10. If they closed the gate early because they’re a lower crazed little snowflake, then the gate agent needs to be terminated. Immediately.

  11. I always silently cheer the morons who seem to enjoy berating those who ‘serve’ them. Their behaviour makes it so much easier for a nice person to accomplish whatever she needs to get done. Because we treat people decently … all the people, all the time. Never has that been more important than now in the travel world.

  12. haha Nah, you’re just so easy…… Bite quicker than a alligator in a GOP swamp.

  13. I’m trying to think of a situation in which all manifested passengers are NOT on board and the gate agent closes the door EARLY. Something doesn’t sound right. I’m again reminded about the teen TikTok’er who said she missed her Spirit flight from LAS because it left an hour early. Oh, come on!

    Now, it might well have been that by the time this lady arrived at the gate her family’s seat had been reassigned to standby passengers. If this is the case, fine, open the door but there aren’t enough seats for the whole family (who are still not at the gate). Perhaps for one straggler but not the whole family. We don’t have the whole story. We don’t have a basis to assess the situation.

    Gary’s teaching is valid nonetheless. A person can choose to be gracious or not — the universe will respond as it will. Take your pick.

  14. The whole party was not present. The gate will not board members of a party without the whole party there. As a retired gate agent , I had passengers insist I board a partial group and than comment that they will delay the flight while on board until the rest arrived. Agents are held accountable if flights are delayed.

  15. I always try my best to be nice to everyone. However, I’ve had some really really horrible experiences with gate agents due to no fault or attitude on my part. Your advice is good but it needs to be passed along to gate agents to treat passengers better in many cases. Not all gate agents are bad of course. Most are very good but there is a certain percentage (and their supervisors) that seem to be looking for a reason to use their “power” to treat people very badly.

  16. Oh Glenn, not this again? Don’t you have another CD to play besides that one?

    Fred, are you serious? I went out of my way if people didn’t scream, throw stuff at me, try to blow snot on me, try to punch me out. And I’m a little Hitler? Yes, all that and more happened to me and my coworkers.

    Give me a break.

  17. I find this is not always true. If you’re too nice, it gives them license to walk all over you.

  18. Omar is not entirely wrong. You don’t want to appear to be a total squish who will accept anything. You do need to know what is possible and what is not, as well as know when you’re being taken because they think they can solve their problem on your back. I don’t find airlines do this very often when dealing with people, but their automatic systems will. If you get rebooked or rerouted, the system can come up with some unacceptable doozies, so always check and immediately call in with a proposed alternative. The worst always seems to be the 3 AM rebooking on your day of departure from Europe back to the US, and you can’t stay an extra day because of prior commitments back home. Your carefully chosen seat gets dropped and you’re in the middle somewhere. Sometimes there are alternatives and sometimes there are not.

    Far worse than airlines are rental car companies. I can’t tell you how many times I get “upgraded” because they’re out of my car. Some people think this is a downside, because they’re trying to turn low-MPG car rentals into hard-to-rent SUVs when gas prices are high, but I don’t regard the gas price as a major component of car rental cost anymore, so that’s acceptable. (I recall one time in France I got “stuck” with an automatic Audi Q7 turbo V8 SUV for a two week roadtrip, which was great, but it was so easy to drive fast that I got a few speeding tickets. Still a great family trip through the backroads of southern France.) But sticking me with an 11 passenger van is not, though I did have to take that once as it was the only thing still on the lot.

    One doesn’t have to get nasty, but being firm or rejecting a first offer is sometimes required. You can be “too nice”.

  19. As a former TWA and AA employee I’ll 2nd that. I flew non-rev many, many times. The gate agents controlled whether I got on the flight or not. I always did what I could to “self help” in monitoring the flight and passenger boarding in order to be less of a burden to the gate agent. I even offered them my help if they were overwhelmed or understaffed. I got upgraded to 1st a lot of times as a sign of appreciation, as well as I normally made every flight, even when full. The few times I got bumped, it was because of things that the agent did not control. So be nice. Show up with a smile, be as patient as you can be, and roll with the punches. Flights get delayed, they get cancelled. You may get re-protected on a non-stop, or on a two stop flight depending on how you treat your agent.

  20. UnionTHAT – Exactly what I said. I appreciate that you have highlighted why being nice is a positive. The entitled “Fred’s” of the world are perfect examples of what is wrong in the world.

  21. I agree about being nice but AA flight JFK to FCO flight held after we boarded – waiting on passengers whose plane was 30 minutes late. Took off almost 1 hour late.

  22. After being an almost exclusive AA/OneWorld passenger for 15 years I began splitting my travel between AA and UA after one too many major disruptions on AA that were handled poorly. Now mostly book on price/schedule between the two and have been able to maintain Exec Plat and 1K on each.

    Two recent data points:
    1. United ORD to Reykjavik. Plane was held for about 30 minutes to accommodate a large group of passengers on a delayed inbound flight. Made up time in the air and landed on time. Probably very few passengers would be connecting in Iceland anyway (at least not on United/Star Alliance).

    2. American ORD to ABQ. Pulled away from the gate exactly at departure time. Overheard gate agent and FA before door closed agree to not hold plane for delayed passengers. We were 20 minutes early to ABQ and I’m pretty confident there were few if any passengers connecting in ABQ.

    AA really doesn’t see the bigger picture here. While I understand not holding a flight for delayed passengers if that could cause a domino effect on other passengers missing connections at the arrival airport, the information about where the passengers are ending up is available to gate agents. Not empowering them to minimize total disruptions serves no one any good.

  23. Allison, I think it’s worth reemphasizing something Gary said. While we see a door closing “operationalized” by a gate agent, the door closing policy / directive is coming from management. And, if gate agents or lead flight attendants are subject to adverse consequences for not complying with that policy / directive, their “on-time” default is understandable. And, if someone wants a gate agent to expose herself / himself to potential adverse consequences, honey works better than vinegar.

    I’m not saying that there are no jerk gate agents. Even as a CK on AA, I’ve experienced them. But, I do say that the jerk gate agents (with all airlines) are the exception. It’s not as if airlines send gate agents to Marriott for training first. So, I assume benevolent intentions.

    Like you, I’ve been frustrated with operational manifestations of AA management. I’ve repeatedly told AA that certain ones are driving me away from AA. And, in fact, I’ve moved a certain amount of my business over to Delta.

    To others, I’m not certain a “time to be not nice” is really what you’re saying. I think you really mean that there’s a time to be a persistent and forceful advocate for your situation. And, I think doing so in a calm, cool, and collected manner — not losing it — is the more successful path.

  24. @Allison is right, AA corporately just has a poor approach in general. Which doesn’t diminish Gary’s point (one that I fully agree with), but the company does no favors to its agents unfortunately. AA seems to be selling ridiculously short, albeit technically legal, connections lately too. Some routes I can’t seem to find much that isn’t a non-realistic connection or a forced overnight at a hub.

  25. Reno – no. And your question is irrelevant.

    GreggB – yes. Power crazed little Hitler. All you airline pansies are. “Respect mah aurhoritay!” trash.

  26. I just wish there were some consistency.
    In early May, my connecting flight was slightly delayed into Philly.
    I am one of first off plane at 6:08, I am slower through airport than I was years ago, but I got from last gate in B to last in A in sub 8 min. Gate A26 out of sight and agent at counter says, “Amsterdam flight is closed”. I look at my watch 6:16.
    I take a minute and THEN go around corner, and I see 2 ticket agents waiting and ask if I have checked luggage (no) and ask if I want on the flight.
    Of course no philly cell service and Verifly App wouldn’t open (if I only thought to take screenshot!!!). I try to get WiFi, no immediate luck.
    5 more people from flight show up, gate agent comes out or nowhere and says, “we are not waiting for luggage you can all go take a connecting flight.”
    She closed the door and walked down to plane. I looked at my watch 6:21.
    Plane pulled back at 6:23.

    Broke line of sight and last flight of the day to AMS “rule.”

    American “responded” to my inquiry, but to this date I haven’t found the response in my account as email claimed.

  27. Kudo’s to the gate agent that closed the gate on the entitled woman with the baby, then reopened it for the legitimate customer. People traveling with babies are often terribly entitled.

    their bad connection planning should NOT delay the outbound flight and make scores of other passengers miss their connections.

  28. Circling back to the woman who was the subject of Gary’s post, it wasn’t just that it was only she that wanted to board.
    She was the front-runner for straggling family members who were even later than she was. With that lot not in sight, I think the gate agent gave her the option of immediate boarding with the door then closed, or wait aside for the family and all go on another flight. Hence the tantrum.
    The gate agent acted correctly and no amount of ‘being nice’ was going to change his mind.

  29. There are many factors that go into a decision about whether to hold a flight at a gate, even for a few minutes. Is the plane getting turned at its destination or will it be remaining overnight? Is there a plane at the departure airport on final approach or already on the ground waiting for the occupied gate? Crew rest issues… will delaying this flight cause a morning flight the next day to be delayed for crew rest issues?

  30. Fred,

    Jack the Lad, so being good, helpful, and trying to ease the burden of others (especially those in my former career) in a tense situation is somehow “bribery”? Talk about misreading the intentions of others. Either that or you’re stirring the pot.

    Zen travel: Be kind, understanding, and helpful. It’s not that hard.

  31. Being nice to gate agents is always something that you should do, as they are truly the “gatekeepers” to the flight… I have two anecdotes about being polite to gate agents…

    First one, I was new to international travel, but had travelled domestically on Delta quite often (and was Platinum back then, when Platinum was as high as you could go)… was on a flight from JFK-LHR, and asked the gate agent about the possibility of an upgrade (again, not understanding that upgrades weren’t free on international flights). The brusque NY “ain’t happenin unless you got $3K in your pocket” sort of set me back a bit. I noticed several other travelers yelling at her, since our flight was delayed by an hour (I don’t remember the reason for the delay). I went up and asked her if she wanted anything from Starbucks, as I was going to go get a coffee. She said that she’d love a latte, if I didn’t mind. I brought her coffee back and smiled as I gave it to her–and said that I hope her day got better! As we were boarding, I started to board with the Platinums and she looked at me and shook her head no. A few minutes later, she called me up, and gave me a business class boarding pass, and thanked me for making her day a little bit better!

    The second one was flying to TLV a few years ago. My routing was supposed to be SJC-LAX-JFK-TLV, but weather in the northeast US and several broken aircraft (and a lightning strike, but that’s a different story) conspired to prevent that, so I ended up on SJC-ATL-AMS-TLV instead. I got to ATL, and they didn’t have me a seat assignment on the flight yet, and it was showing as fully booked. I asked the gate agent politely, and she told me that she’d get me one as soon as she could. Shortly after I sat down, another passenger came up and started going off on the agent that he was supposed to be flying JFK-TLV in business class, and he _HAD_ to have a seat on this flight, or he wasn’t going to be able to do his business in TLV. He kept yelling that he _had_ to have a seat and that he wasn’t going to be happy until he got his seat assignment, and that “it had better be a good one, since I was supposed to be in business!” She told him the same thing she’d told me — that he’d get a seat assignment as soon as she could. Right before boarding starts, she calls him up and tells him that he has a Comfort Plus seat, and that’s the best she could do. He wasn’t happy with that, and stormed off. She called me up, and said that she had a last-row aisle seat for me, with nobody sitting next to me. She whispered to me that I definitely got the better end of the deal, since I was nicer to her, and that I should look at where he was sitting as I walked to the back of the plane. As I boarded, I saw him sandwiched into a Comfort Plus seat with two gentlemen who looked like football players on either side of him, and he was clearly not going to be comfortable for the 8 hours or so to Amsterdam. On the other hand, I had a nice comfy seat, nobody sitting next to me, and nobody sitting directly in front of me (A330, I believe, with the last row having 3 seats in the middle instead of 4, so I had nobody sitting directly in front of me to recline into me 🙂 )… and she’d apparently told the FAs that I was friendly and nice to her, as they kept bringing me snacks and bottles of water.

    Moral of the story: Always be nice to the gate agent… they can make your flight hell if they want to 😉

  32. Drew…
    Well said! Like I mentioned earlier on…..the dork who was mean to the gate agent on the AMS trip never knew the agent got the better of him. Folks…be nice and polite to your gate agent!

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