Beat The System: How To Persuade Airline Staff To Bend Rules For You

Airline rules are notoriously complex, and at the same time can’t account for all situations. Employees, then, need to have a way of getting around those rules when it makes sense – or else the company is going to be stuck applying rules in edge cases that hurt customers, make it look bad, and cost it business in the long run.

Cancer patients are going to miss reunions with dying family members, disabled veterans are going to be unable to afford to make it to important medical appointments, and the company’s best customers will get left behind at the airport while once a year basic economy customers get free drinks in their extra legroom seats.

So airline employees often have some discretion in applying the rules. That discretion begins to cost the airline a lot of money, and employees get put on a tighter leash. American Airlines tightened up policy on putting passengers on other airlines during flight delays (but still left some discretion). Then they used this flexibility as a way to get customers to sign up for AAdvantage.

American stopped giving out meal vouchers during delays after US Airways management took over, replacing the practice with $1.47 snack boxes. Now they give out $12 vouchers again (which can be added to your Starbucks app if you don’t use them in-airport).

‘Refresh and Refuel’ carts

Two decades ago under Chief Executive Leo Mullin, Delta explicitly had a policy of not helping customers. It was called ‘Simply Good Business’ and known as ‘no waivers, no favors’. Agents waiving fees and other charges was costing too much, so there would be no fee waivers at all. Rule-following had to become Germanic. That policy didn’t last.

There’s a pendulum that swings where loose policies are deemed costly, control gets centralized but proves unworkable, and flexibility is returned – only for the cycle to repeat.

Nonetheless, you should assume that there’s some flexibility available when dealing with airline agents because it’s low cost to do so with high upside.

While American Airlines has made getting on a different flight within 45 minutes of departure much harder the fact that there’s a workaround for top elite flyers means it is, in fact, still possible. Even where there are restrictions there are workaround.

The key in every situation is to get the customer service person on your side. They need to want to help you. It doesn’t work every time, but it has a much higher chance of working doing this. And you can always go ask someone else if the first person says no.

When I’m in line at a customer service counter, after several flight cancellations and when everyone is in a bad mood and in a tough spot, I will try joking with the agent and commisserating with them. Remember that the person you are dealing with is not the airline. Whatever happened is not their fault and they are people too. “Boy, you must have it rough today with all these unhappy people.” “I’m gonna be your next problem person.”

  • Don’t talk down to them. Don’t complain. Don’t argue.
  • Don’t act like a ‘know it all’ act like someone who appreciates their help.
  • Be someone they want to go out of their way for.

At the same time: be prepared and do your own research. I’ll find the flights that should be available that I want, whether on the same airline or a different airline. I’ll offer helpful suggestions, rather than telling the agent how to do their job (“I’d even be happy with…”).

And you get numerous bites at the apple! For instance,

  • Gate
  • Customer service counter
  • Check-in desk
  • Kiosk
  • Twitter team
  • Telephone customer service
  • Airline club

As a general matter I never assume something is impossible until I’ve been told no at least three times. Each agent’s demeanor and willingness to route around constraints (1) will vary in ability, and (2) will vary in willingness. So I keep at it.

I’ve jumped upgrade queues because it was the path of least resistance for an agent when they struggled with their system. I’ve had agents confirm me in first class when I was only entitled to coach. I’ve had rooms and meal vouchers authorized when strictly speaking the issue was weather. This is all under the rubric of hang up, call back when you don’t get the answer you want the first time whether it’s literal (on the phone) or metaphorical (in person).

Never argue with an airline agent. You also don’t want them making derogatory notes in your reservation, documenting that you’ve been told something is impossible, because then the next agent is just likely to back them up. There’s no use in ‘educating’ an agent and proving your case if they’re recalcitrant. Just move on to the next person.

And by the way this same advice applies dealing with any large corporation. Employees are rarely judged on how helpful they are. If anything they might be judged by how quickly they move you along. So you want to get them on your side. You want them to want to help you. Be nice, and be sympathetic.

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. I learned this lesson from my wife in 2016. My daughter was wrapping up a year of college in Japan and we were headed over to pack her up and bring her home. Booked BNA-MSP-HND-HIJ. The first flight was cancelled due to a mechanical issue. And a long line formed behind a single agent for rebooking. I was in line and my wife wandered off. She approached a gate agent who had just boarded a flight and almost in tears asked nicely if she could help. She started typing and suddenly said come with me. My wife hollers at me and I broke line. She ran with us 3 gates down to a flight that had just boarded. Now we had two agents, one on the computer and one on the radio. In about three minutes we were on a flight to LAX-HND-HIJ. Even our luggage made it. My wife hugged the agents. We actually arrived earlier than our original flight. Contrast that experience with American screwing me twice in one month (and a gate agent actually laughing about it) is why Delta gets my $35-40k spend every year on international flights.

  2. H2O … if you were a Marine , you could have flown free to Iwakuni , without the drama .

  3. Be nice to your gate agent. They have the power to upgrade you or, if you piss them off, seat you in a seat in the back, by the lav, in-between the person with a screaming baby and the person of size.

  4. @alert
    My daughter got a free trip to Afghanistan, but didn’t really recommend the trip.

  5. Hi, I have (name problem). I know it might not work, but if you could (offer solution), it would really help me out!

    The more specific you can be about the solution the better. “If I could be on flight #### leaving at HH:MM” is much better than “put me on a later flight.”

    Also state your reality rather than asking questions. “(whatever) happened and I am not going to make my flight. Can you put me on (details of flight you can make)?” is much better than “What happens if I don’t make my flight?”

    One is asking for a solution and the other is asking for policy, which they may then feel inclined to follow.

    And, sometimes the software will prompt the agent to do a certain thing, and you can say, “Oh, I understand the computer thinks you have to do that, but is it possible to waive that in (whatever your circumstances)?”

    United has earned essentially all my airline business by being consistently flexible with me. (And having that really nice lounge at ORD C10!)

  6. @Alert I was smart. I joined the Army ;-). But between long flights on MAC and web seats on a C-130. I’ll stick to commercial aviation.

  7. @Linda: One thing gate agents definitely no longer have the power to do is give you an upgrade, except maybe on a later flight as part of negotiations to avoid an IDB.

  8. @Christopher an upgrade isn’t always to first or business. It can be to premium economy, a seat farther forward, a drink or meal voucher. There are lots of ways to be nice, up to, and including, an upgrade to business or first.

  9. My wife and I were in Miami, with plans to fly AA when the 737 Max 8 ground halt happened.

    It was supposed to be MIA -DEN, but with most Max 8 planes for AA being MIA based, suddenly no flights were available.

    I called EP number, they could find nothing.

    So, I grabbed the laptop, went to ITA Matrix, and found a three flight hop to get back..

    I called the EP desk and offered my solution. Since it was IrrOps, they waived any change requirements and booked us both on that route.

    Then the fun really started… with confirmed seats, we volunteered on every flight IF the offer was big money AND a confirmed seat on the next flight. (Repeat on next flight too!)

    We made $4k that day and had a ball.

  10. Whenever I tell a passenger No, I document their reservation with what was asked and what I declined to do, and leave a note if any questions call me.

  11. My wife and two kids had an award booking in J on American from Ord to Vancouver to Sydney on american and Qantas before Christmas in 2019. The Ord to Vancouver leg was discontinued and their booking was changed to include a long layover in Dallas.

    I kept searching for weeks for better options but there was no availability. For a laugh I rung American and got an older customer agent who was very nice. She suggested that we just fly Ord to lax to Sydney. I agreed that would be nice but there were no seats. She put me on hold and came back and said she could swap it. I immediately thought she was looking at economy…

    But no, she had managed to swap three of them into first and business class on AA metal all the way to Oz. A week out and a week before Christmas. Never knew agents had that power!!!

  12. @NedsKids I bet you’re a lot of fun at parties.

    Sugar always wins over versus vinegar. Be kind and a good human. Those who can help, will.

  13. Great so now you gave away all my tricks at least now the airline staff will get treated nice. Yelling and screaming at airport staff usually gets you delayed or thrown in jail.

  14. All good advice. Especially being nice and offering a reasonable solution. The airline agents usually seem to be looking for a way to fix things so they can move on, and you can help them do that.

  15. I love how basic civility and being nice to people around you is now a “trick” or a “life hack,” I say sarcastically. While everything said might be true, are we really becoming a society that is only willing to be civil and polite if we have an opportunity to get something for it? Wouldn’t it be nice if we were all a little kinder to everyone around us? Perhaps if we avoid spreading negativity, we’ll all have a more pleasant experience (and not just at the airport)? Let’s all try be kind to one nother, whether or not there’s a perceived treat to reward us. Maybe that gate agent is having a tough enough day without anyone being hostile to them or trying to to game them? Good deeds and a good attitude towards others will put you in a better mood too, which can be just as enjoyable as that upgrade. Best flight I ever had was one where I was booked in first class, but saw an elderly woman traveling with an infant who I had overheard was traveling to bring the baby to his father (her son in law), after her daughter’s death from cancer. It broker my heart. I quietly pulled aside an agent and asked her to upgrade the woman into my seat, and that I’d take hers. I asked her not to let the woman know that anyone gave up their seat and to just upgrade her as if it was company policy. I didn’t ask for (or want) anything in return. The entire flight, I felt good, regardless of the quality of the coach seat. For those who don’t do it often, spend some time doing good for others without expecting compensation. You’ll find it adds so much joy and value to your life, that the increase in your sense of self-worth will be more than worth it. (And you might just get recognized for your good works, but by then, you won’t care bout that part as much.)

  16. Sometime about twenty-five years ago I was on a one-day business trip BWI-ORD-BWI. It was on United, and I left from BWI because that way I could get Southwest fares without having to fly Southwest. The meeting ended early and I took the CTA Blue Line back out to the airport, watching the stalled traffic on the adjacent Kennedy Expressway which included airport buses and taxicabs. I got to O’Hare around 6:00 pm, with a 9:05 pm departure to BWI and not sure how I’d get home (trains to BWI Airport Rail Station would have stopped running by then). There was a United flight to Washington National Airport leaving at 7:10. I went to that gate, showed my super-duper-fare ticket to the agent, and asked if there was any way I could get on it. He said I would be last priority for standby and come back around 6:55. I went off, found dinner, and came back at that time. He did stuff on his computer and handed me a boarding pass. Everyone else was already on. I thanked him and got on; I had an aisle seat. Not only did I get to Washington DC much earlier, the subway was still running, and it got me home. Meanwhile, United got a seat back on the 9:05 to BWI which they very well could have needed. It worked out for both of us.

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