Real World Travel Tip: Take Care of Your Airline Club Agents, and They Will Really Take Care Of You

When I was young my family had a big gathering each year at the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden. I remember being quite young, maybe 5 or 6, and spilling something on my shirt at brunch beforehand, so had to make a stop at a department store on the way to the event for a replacement. And… I spilled food on that shirt later in the day, too.

My great uncle bought me a t-shirt at a concession stand to wear. It was a young boy sharing his ice cream cone with his horse. The horse was licking the ice cream. And the caption read, “treat your pony as you would like to be treated yourself.”

I still have that shirt, although it doesn’t fit anymore. But it was my lesson very young that you should treat others well, and they’ll care about you in return. (The lesson wasn’t that other people are horses, at least that’s not the lesson I took.)

Fast-forward 35 years, and I try to share my ice cream or good fortune where I can — especially with the people who help me along the way. Sometimes that means a thank you. Thank you’s are easy and cheap but often go unsaid, and a little bit of kindness to people who so often deal with frustrated customers can mean a lot.

Sometimes it means a Starbucks gift card, I usually carry a few ‘just in case’ to give someone a token where it would be inappropriate to offer them a tip. It stays with them more, probably, than just the words. But if someone does something more for me than they have to, and I’m able to, I’d like to show them my thanks.

I don’t really believe in karma, but I think the general attitude that goes with it helps. And it makes it easier to be helped.

Friday afternoon I’m sitting in my office and I get an email from American Airlines: my flight to Dallas was delayed. It was just showing a short 10 or 15 minute delay, so I’d have no problem making my connection. But I started looking into the inbound aircraft, which hand’t taken off yet, and I became skeptical. I was taking the last Dallas flight of the night, and my connection was the last of the night, and I figured things would get worse.

In my experience American tends to post creeping delays, often at the last moment (they’ll post a delay or an update to a delay only once they’ve hit – and missed – the projected departure time).

Things got worse for my flight and I was clearly going to misconnect. I had visions spending the night in Dallas. There was no other way to leave later and still make it.

Then I missed a phone call on my cell. Ten minutes later I checked my voicemail.

One of the agents from Washington National’s Admirals Club called. She saw I was going to misconnect, and had protected me on the Chicago flight instead.

    It left 15 minutes earlier than my original flight. If I could make it to the airport early, I could go up to the desk in the lounge and she’d re-issue my ticket.

It was 6pm, this was the 6:55pm flight. I got my stuff together, hit the button for Uber on my phone, and I was on my way at 6:10pm. I was at the airport at 6:25pm. Through security and in the lounge at 6:30pm. Ticket re-issued and at the gate at 6:35pm, 20 minutes prior to departure.

She even thought to secure me the seat closest to the front in coach for my flight to Chicago. If the flight landed on time it would be a barely legal, short connection, and she wanted me to be able to get off the aircraft quickly. And she managed to preserve my upgrade for my onward connection.

  • I had a middle seat in the bulkhead row of coach to Chicago, instead of my first class flight to Dallas.
  • I was truly grateful.

The flight to Chicago hadn’t shown any seats when I checked earlier. Maybe she had already grabbed it for me, or maybe she managed to put me in it even though I wasn’t seeing revenue inventory.

Either way she got me on my way. She saw the problem, solved the problem, and reached out to me personally to let me know.

And it was the second time in 10 days that an American lounge agent saved my bacon. A week and a half earlier I was likely to misconnect enroute to San Francisco. The agent protected me on a later flight, which is what I wound up taking — a flight that was sold out by the time I had landed in Dallas. (She didn’t reissue the ticket though because there was still a shot I could have made my original flight.)

I ‘grew up’ on the United lounge agents at Washington Dulles, whom I never found to be nearly so friendly. So I didn’t learn the lesson early of being nice to your lounge agents, they aren’t just the people who check your credentials to let you in. They’re the people who keep you going during your travels. It’s why I really love the lounges — not because of the stale cookies and well drinks.

I don’t know whether the agent in the lounge helped me because she’s come to know me, because I’m expressed my thanks, or because she just provides outstanding customer service as the agents in that lounge do — but whatever kindness I may have ever shown there was repaid to me many times over.

Friday night I tweeted,

American’s lounge staff at Washington National and in Austin really are the best.

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. We very generously tip our lounge agents and bartenders ($20-$50 per person, depending on their role) at the SFO SkyClub every year around Christmas. Sadly, almost all of “our” people left or retired during 2014, and we don’t know the new people very well. It seems inappropriate to give such large tips to the newbies, so we’re left wondering what to do with that money this year…

  2. Holy smokes! This is the type of service from an airline employee that most of us could only dream would exist. I would certainly be supplying that employee with many tokens of my gratitude. She was acting better than any real-world concierge I have ever encountered.

    BTW, how did she come to know of your problem? From my experience, it’s almost impossible for me to imagine a lounge agent randomly checking upcoming flights to see if any customers would have connection problems. And then calling them to help! This is like a parallel universe.

  3. I had a flight to Europe via JFK cancel on me. AAngel in the AC rebooked me via LHR. After I sat down I checked and they had spaces available via CDG that I can use my systemwide on. For some reason it won’t let her rebook me but she spent and hour trying, calling everyone can can think of. In the mean time other bitchy passengers from the cancelled flight were yelling at her while she was trying to take care of me and take care of other passengers, just to make sure I can get my translant upgrade.

    On my way to my gate I stopped by the candy store, bought a box of chocolates, went back to the AC, and gave it to her.

    AC and EXP phone line AAngels are my biggest reason for sticking with AA. Holy cow are they amazing.

  4. Another time another AAngel helped me and I was rushing to my flight. On the way back I stopped by to thank her but she wasn’t there, so I got the mailing address for that AC, wrote a letter to her supervisor describing how she went above and beyond to help me, and mailed to to her along with a Sbux gift card.

  5. Way back in 1999, AC was on strike and I was stuck in Paris with 2 of my friends. We were supposed to be on a direct flight from CDG to YYZ but because of the strike, only a handful of flights were allowed to leave. Needless to say, anyone and everyone were taking it out on the ground/check-in agents. When it came to my turn, I just calmly and politely requested to be placed on the waitlist on the first flight out, if possible. The agent was very taken aback with my calmness and I explained that it obviously wasn’t her fault and that screaming at her was not going to make her day any easier. She looked at me and smiled. 4 hours later, we were on our way to Toronto even though were we had to do a layover in Montreal. I was stunned because I had no status and there were only a handful of us that got on that flight, my two friends included. As a thank you, I bought all 17 of the ground staff burgers and fries because we really were grateful to be able to leave.

    Fast forward 2005, I was again in CDG, waiting in line to check in. One of those 17 agents recognized me, pulled me aside, upgraded me to first class, personally escorted me through security and into the lounge. For whatever karma’s worth Gary, I never will forget that episode.

  6. Hate to be cynical, but isn’t it most likely that they know you’re a reviewer and have you on a sort of VIP list?

    Compare that to the theories of: 1) karma, or 2) the agent just happening to check whether you’d be on a flight because you gave her a gift card…

  7. Saw your Tweet on Friday but didn’t know the particulars. Good to get the back-story now. Think I’ll go pick up some $10 Starbucks cards (at Office Depot on my Ink Bold card for 5x points!).

  8. How would they have even known you were flying that day? I’m assuming they spend downtime looking at the PNRs of certain high value customers to look for stuff like that. Maybe all EXPs and CKs? Or maybe there’s an unpublished flag to set on aadvantage accounts for media? I’m assuming that if AA gave you CK based on your media exposure that you would have told us already.

    The test would be to see if other EXPs on that flight got the same treatment or not.

  9. Stop the presses!

    They could have just been screening by Admirals club members flying out of DCA that day looking for misconnects, then saw your name and recognized you.

  10. @Wilger and all the other doubters. I’ve had AAngels hook up this EXP out of Denver in similar misconnect situations. They know me or regularly check their passenger manifests during IRROPS. This is unheard of in most traveler’s universe but AA has saved me twice. Builds loyalty and keeps me in the Admirals club. With Gary’s reminder and the holidays upcoming some thank yous and small gifts are in order. Airline service in the US is not completely dead, lets celebrate where its not.

  11. I’ve also experienced the AAngels proactively re-booking me (EXP) during delays where I would have missed my connection. Love the Starbucks gift card idea and will pick up some before traveling for Thanksgiving. My home AC is at SFO where I’m recognized and warmly greeted whenever I stop in. That team deserves a special thanks from me. Appreciate the idea Gary!!

  12. @Gary: I carry Starbucks cards for thank you’s, too. I figure if I tip $5, they’ll never think about it when they spend it amongst their other cash. When they pull out the SBUX card, though, they’ll remember EXACTLY why they have it and be encouraged to keep providing that stellar service. I gave away two on the MR I’m on now to staff in the JFK FL. I was connecting from a US itinerary for positioning to an AA itinerary to PEK with a BA itinerary flying JL metal PEK-NRT to meet the transit visa requirements. Needless to say check-in was a b*tch, even for them… plus when my SWU had cleared it didn’t pull the cert correctly. 50 minutes later they had everything sorted out AND my return upgrade on the TPAC cleared. Bravo!

  13. Very interesting idea. I did have an agent in NYC JFK help my wife get Precheck even though it was not printed on her ticket. We just got there from Vienna and the place was a zoo. Going from International to domestic terminal walking outside with baggage etc. What a hassle. The agent pulled strings to get it changed. Naturally TSA was not help whatsoever. Normnally if not printed on the ticket you are out of luck. My wife had her Global Entry card with her. Turned out she did not put that into a profile which is important. In fact put it in every profile of the airlines you have tickets for. The agent saved us alot of time even though it took her at least 10 minutes to get this done. We gave her some special chocolate we just got in Vienna.

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