To Cut Staffing At Gates, American Airlines Will Start Clearing Standbys And Nonrevs Earlier

The story of my life is last minute saves at the airport, just squeaking onto a flight and just making it home. It’s one of the reasons I’ve valued elite status, because it helps me jump to the top of the list not just for upgrades but to get onto another flight when things go extra right or very, very wrong.

Unfortunately a policy change that accompanies the American Airlines move to single agent boarding for flights that are less than 80% full will make it tougher to get onto an earlier flight or to have options during irregular operations, too.

Agent Assist (automated system) will “auto clear revenue and non-revenue customers on certain domestic mainline flights with load factors below 80% …at D-60.”

  • I’ll get to the airport early – or arrive a bit early in my connecting city – and run up to a gate to get added to the standby list for the flight just as they’re starting to board, or even during boarding. Now American will have given away many of the seats that I might have been able to get, a full hour before departure.

  • My flight hits a delay, whether because of weather, maintenance, or crew coming off of a different flight (since American no longer keeps crews together with planes) and I’ll get rebooked onto something that’s about to leave. Rebooking options for flights that are leaving within an hour are going to be much more limited.

  • American is going to be giving away seats to employees (non-rev) and to non-status and lower status customers who are on the standby list an hour before departure, that in the past would have been given to paying and higher-tier elite status at the gate.

The same story, by the way, goes for seat assignments. Even if someone can get on a flight, there are going to be fewer seats available to give those last minute standby passengers better seats.

This process attempts to automate gate agents out of a job, reducing the amount of work done at the gate so that it’s more manageable for one person, but still makes those most important customer touchpoints difficult.

  • The most important moments are those last minute “will I make the flight or won’t I? Will I get home tonight or won’t I?” Those make or break a relationship with an airline, especially for a top elite customer. In fact, the great benefit of status is in those moments where the customer rises to the top of the list at the last moment to get that last seat and make it to their destination.

  • Fewer seat options for that customer (because some of those seats will have been given away at T-60) is compounded by no one available to help them when they do make it to the gate. A solo agent can’t easily stop boarding to add someone to the standby list. Even if they’re supposed to many won’t. And the company will ultimately stand behind them if they say “I couldn’t risk delaying the flight’s departure.” But the problem wasn’t risking an on-time departure, it was the airline’s failure to adequately staff customer service at the gate.

This change devalues elite status and it devalues traditional business travelers. Perhaps it represents a long term bet that these aren’t the customers American Airlines is going to be able to attract in a post-pandemic world, even if we do return.

Update: an American Airlines spokesperson offers,

No agents will lose their jobs when this new technology comes onboard this summer, and we will continue to be fully staffed at the gates. Agent Assist is part of our initiative to modernize systems through better technology for agents and customers. When we can automate time consuming processes with technology, we reduce lines at the airport and give agents more time to spend with travelers who have more complex itineraries or need additional support. Our agents will be less rushed to process manual transactions and can more meaningfully help those who need it. Agents will still have full ability to make the changes customers need.

I think I would disagree with American over the definition of ‘fully staffed’ and whether or not current agents lose their jobs is hardly the issue for customers or for employees. If employees were satisfied with job (or even base!) protection we wouldn’t have seen American’s mechanics put everyone through a summer from hell in 2019 over outsourcing, since every current mechanic was guaranteed their job and place of work.

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. Seems a bit overblown, after all, it’s for flights less than 80% full. That’s a lot of seats to give away for standby customers.

  2. Agree w Frankman – yet again Gary is making a big deal out of something that likely isn’t.

    This is for flights that are less than 80% full (which represents a small percentage of flights even now). If a flight has that much room you likely still could get on it last minute. I’m lifetime Platinum (longtime EP but now retired) and have no problem w it. All airlines have to get more efficient. Sure that May devalue your ability to get an aisle seat if you move to an earlier flight but you still could most likely get on the flight. You always have to option of waiting for a later flight and getting to the top of the list.

    Please quit with the nit picking just because it may potentially adversely impact you – it is really getting old!

  3. They can always un-clear standbys if a VVIP passenger turns up and must be seated in one of the 20% of seats that were empty just minutes ago.

    Clearing nonrev earlier could improve morale among employees – sorely needed!

  4. AA does not care about passenger comfort or convenience. Once I use up my miles, I will not fly them again.

  5. This news is indeed a bummer. I have been traveling during the pandemic and am nearing Platinum Pro for next year. Several times, even recently with over 80% full, I was able to jump on to an earlier connecting flight at DFW right before boarding would start by being placed at or near the front of the standby list. Looks like that is less likely to happen with a single gate agent and the Auto Assist triggered at T minus 60 minutes.

  6. Former airline supervisor here. This is NOT a brilliant move, IMHO. If a bunch of revenue people show up after the non-revs are boarded, are they then going to pull the non-revs? If so, with only one gate agent, who is going to do it? The already overburdened flight attendants? HA! Going to deny boarding to the late revenue passengers? DAFUQ is management thinking?

  7. Gary, I notice that at least for an AA booking next October to NYC connecting in DFW or PHX for a California departure that two one-way nonrefundable fares are MORE expensive than the same nonrefundable roundtrip fare. Howver, the same two one-way refundable fares are the same price as a roundtrip refundable fare. Previously my two one-way nonrefundable fares priced at the same cost as a nonrefundable roundtrip fare. Possibly another bummer change from AA for you to investigate and determine how widespread this pricing is in the AA system.

  8. As long as they stop clearing the <80% flights once they get to 80% (and don't take a flight from 79% to 100% at D-60), this seems reasonable. But how much good will it do? The flights with the light loads aren't the ones that a single GA will struggle with.

  9. Why do some feel a need to lecture?
    They’re cutting staff? That’s rich. I guess bailout welfare didn’t go quite that far after executives got their cut.

  10. Good, paying customers getting their seats as they should be instead of some greed driven status holder getting them instead. I never understood why airlines can’t forgo all of this status idiocy and just sell the available seats on the plane like ANY other business would do with their product. Attract loyalty by providing great service and not crapping all over their customers like is the current business model for US airlines.

  11. US airways did this single agent thing and it was horrible.
    That single agent worked the jet bridge, deplaned people and wasn’t much available for customer to deal with customers.

  12. What % of flights are actually less than 80% load?

    Not sure the policy applies to enough flights to even be helpful to agents.

  13. Another genius, innovative decision, probably conceived by pocket-protector-wearing, bean-counting, human robots in a sterile corporate office.
    Stuff like this is what made me switch to a 330am-400am start time (away from my beloved 100pm-300pm start times). The earlier shifts pretty much assured me of staying with a ticket counter assignment throughout my work day and avoiding a possible circus-like atmosphere at a gate.
    (Retired from US/AA at LAX since. 2016.)

  14. Dug old Buddy old Pal, I’ll be watching this very closely to determine if I can also add another few cents to the bottom line.

  15. @Ryan Waldron re “Good, paying customers getting their seats as they should be instead of some greed driven status holder getting them instead. ”

    This begs the question: “How do you define a good paying customer?”

    I think this is mostly a discussion about who gets that otherwise empty seat at the front of the plane that has not been sold. If you paid for your seat then in almost all cases it is still your seat. The exception would be overbooking and that is seldom a problem for people who show up in good time. Arrive late at the gate and you take your chances.

    I firmly believe that giving priority to regular customers, particularly those generating significant revenue, is a wise policy for any airline. Customers who travel once a year on bargain basement fares can’t claim anything more than the lowest tier service levels. That includes denied boarding if you show up at the gate 5 minutes before pushback.

    With only one agent at the gate and automated boarding, the whole game changes, as Greg Bender has explained. I predict the situation will get a lot worse for some people before it gets any better.

  16. This sort of crap is likely to push me back into Delta’s arms. AA had a real opportunity to poach disaffected FFs from Delta, and DUI Duggy is of course squandering it.

  17. If it is true that “This change devalues elite status and…traditional business travelers,” wouldn’t AA be cutting off its nose to spite its face? Of course, maybe AA thinks it won’t have as many elites or business travelers in the future. The way it’s going, that might well be true!

  18. If they have to pull ‘pre-cleared’ nonrevs in order to make room for a late-arriving rev then it’s not a big deal. It sucks for the nonrevs but it’s not like there’s fallout as if they were bumping a paying customer.

  19. Every airline that is burdened by legacy cost structures, AA included, needs elite business, especially if they experience declines in volume for a period of time.

    One possible fix for keeping elites happy is to change the timing for upgrades. If upgrades are locked in some hours before pushback (2? 8? 24?) then in many cases the elites will be satisfied. Late to the game and you lose.

    The airlines are good at estimating last minute demand so they can block off a certain number of J and F seats available for sale. With this tactic they may very well boost revenues even if some premium seats fly empty. And this may go some way to reducing gate agent work.

    There are two types of elites. There are those who fly lots and always buy economy tickets and there are those who are willing and able to reach into their pocket when they miss the new earlier upgrade deadline. The latter group are the ones who will scoop up the last minute premium seats but pay for it in real dollars, not banked points.

    Will there be complaints if this is enacted? Of course, the elites are experts at complaining. The cheapskates will sit in Y and grumble while the others will sit in J and grumble that they had to pay full fare.

    One possible tweak to this formula would be to Dutch Auction the unassigned premium seats an hour before pushback. (For those unfamiliar with Dutch Auctions, the price drops in time intervals, for instance a dollar every second, and registered bidders get just one shot as the price falls…whoever pushes the button first gets the ticket)

  20. when I worked at NWA prior to the DL merger, the airport kiosks used to let the nonrevs pick their own seats in Y if the load factor was below a certain threshold. it was nice to look at a seatmap, pick a seat and walk on the plane like a normal human.
    You couldn’t pick F or J seats, but would remain on the standby list for those cabins and if something better opened up,, the GA would page you.

    the whole system didn’t collapse like Gary would have you believe. stop whining.

  21. In agreement with Pete.
    Once when traveling on Alitalia in 2018, ROM-MAD, on a confirmed low fare (not as a standby, other carrier airline employee), AZ sent me an email offer, one day prior to my travel date, to bid for an upgrade to business class, or whatever they called it.
    I bid ninety euros. About three hours before my flight, AZ sent an email indicating that the upgrade was confirmed and it had been charged to my credit card.
    No muss, no fuss and the airline profits with whoever is willing to pay.

  22. I’m not opposed to this per-se, except to understand at what point in time the ‘flight is below 80% load factor’ is calculated? Flights are CONSTANTLY changing on day of departure, so do they just make the decision at a certain time for the rest of the day if it’s <80% at that point, or say it goes over 80% 2 hours before departure do they add another agent and process manually? What about the reverse, flight goes down to 79% load factor, then what? These arbitrary decisions by airlines are maddening.

  23. Glenn T: Many hubs have 35 minute connecting times. What about those passengers? Boarding standbys and non-revs usually involves releasing seats of the people who haven’t boarded.

  24. Don’t worry. It will only last for a month or so once they see it doesn’t work. That automated assist has been around for.months and it’s nothing but a headache for agents. Voices were heard by management that ot sucked and they kept pushing that it will help alleviate the workload for agents. Never, mind you, giving any indication that they would try this single agent b.s. later down the road. But we kinda guessed that’s why they were pushing it so hard. They automated assist is flawed, makes mistakes in which the agent has to go back and correct all the time. And let’s be honest, accommodating standbys takes 5 minutes. They paid someone to come up with this garbage then paid someone to program it, it performs like crap….all in the name of saving the agent 5 mins of work??? Pfftt

  25. Hey American, instead of cutting staffing at the gates, why don’t you fucking cut staffing with the flight attendants since you don’t provide any fucking service on the plane anyway and they basically just say welcome aboard then sit the fuck down. The staffing at the gates are doing work as opposed to the flight attendants.

  26. +1 for the camp that says this is a whole lot of nothing. Odds are there won’t be enough standbys to fill the remaining 20% of seats.

    Plus, United has also been doing this for non-revs for months and I haven’t heard of it bumping elites. In some cases, I’ve been cleared 4 hours before the flights and upgrades/revenue standbys get on just fine.

  27. Stop the whining, already. The real problem isn’t Gate Agent staffing. There’s a symbiotic relationship between airlines and Corporate America. The fortune 500 sends their overpaid execs to useless meetings week after week so they can play and stay out of everyone’s hair so the real work can get done at HQ. The airlines need the inflated seat revenue to offset the 99 dollar seats. The solution to ever increasing demand in front is to take from the poor cabin and install more big front seats and stop giving them away to the wine class for zero marginal revenue.

  28. AA stood for Customer Service ; C R Smith who started AA is turning over\
    in his grave. Think about the right way to serve the public and you need
    assistance in the gate area for boarding, making sure the public enjoy
    the flight. This is really the beginning of the end..

  29. I agree that clearing non-revs early is worrisome, particularly on certain routes with a high level of them (DFW-ORD, DFW-any where vacationable). Especially this last part — have you seen how defeated people get when they miss a cruise because they can’t get on a flight that day after irrops, or they have to take a day short on their disney world trip?? It’s sad.

    But pre-clearing rev passengers I totally agree with. The elitism from frequent flyers ‘jumping the queue ‘is nauseating. Frequent flyers get preferred seats (and extra legroom seats), upgraded to F (SWUs for Exec Plats can be unbelievably valuable!), earn at double (or more) the rates of redemption miles, get checked bagged benefits, and are generally well taken care of (dedicated exec plat line!). I’ve been a status-less or passenger most of my life — but still flew about 8-10 mostly domestic flights a year; most with family, which comes to a decent number of tickets and revenue but still can fall just short of the person-level EQMs and/or EQDs calculations to reach even gold. And when it comes to a standby list (no matter how one finds themselves there), I think status-less revs have every right to clear an hour early even if it means some exec plat sits in a lesser than stellar seat because their incoming flight arrived a little early and want to walk onto the immediate flight. Non-status Revenue passengers are valuable customers too, and airlines are pretty harsh on them the way it is blocking half the aircraft without a seat upcharge, ridiculous baggage fees (and limitations), boarding when overhead space is gone, long customer service wait times and lines, etc.

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