Trouble at the Gate
Since I started this blog a few months ago, it’s really started to sound like I have a grudge with United. I swear, I don’t. I actually like them, or used to, in theory. I’ve had some good luck with their frequent flier program, I’ve flown them to some great trips, and I used my MileagePlus miles recently to book a leg of my upcoming honeymoon. They also used to have the only direct flight between the New York City area and Edinburgh, where I went to graduate school.
The thing is, I went about two years without flying with them, and their domestic product seems to have gone down in quality since. Their 737 fleet is generally uncomfortable and bombards you with advertisements and distractions, and their onboard amenities are unpleasant (unless you get the stroopwaffle in the morning).
On a recent journey from Newark (EWR) to Palm Beach, Florida (PBI), the flight itself was fine but I was still left with a bad impression thanks to a few unprofessional gate agents.
Gate agents are the ones responsible for the boarding process of each flight. They have a really tough job; boarding can be neat and orderly or it can be totally chaotic and drawn out, especially on single-aisle planes where only one person can get to their seat at a time.
Gate agents have to deal with a ton of different things at the same time. They’re under pressure from the airline to get the plane boarded and out on time. They’re dealing with the maintenance and cleaning crews on the plane. Plus, they’re negotiating with angry passengers with oversized luggage, grumpy elites whose upgrades didn’t clear, distracted travelers who get to the front of the line and don’t realize that they need their boarding pass out, and so on. They’re announcing delays, following security regulations, directing people who are going to miss their connections, and looking for volunteers to give up their seats on oversold flights.
The point is, it’s a tough job. Most of the time, you wouldn’t know how hard it is because the gate agents are cool, calm, collected.
Other times. . .
Our flight to PBI was scheduled for 4:15 p.m. Reni and I took New Jersey Transit from the city to the AirTrain, and made it through the PreCheck lane at security in about four minutes. We had around a half-hour until the flight, so we headed straight to the gate.
After a few minutes, as people already started lining up to board, the gate agent announced a delay of "up to about an hour," although signage said 35 minutes. We moved over to a bar in the middle of the hallway in front of our gate to charge our phones and listen out for any updates. A flight to Costa Rica, also delayed, was boarding at a gate near ours, and for some reason their announcements came over the speaker at our gate, which was incredibly confusing — the agents had really similar voices.
It’s a good thing we didn’t go too far. Just a few minutes later, the agent was back, announcing that the delay would only be five minutes. United, to their credit, sent out text messages about the original delay and the revised time, but the confusion caused by announcing the delay, then saying “never mind” a few minutes later seems like it could have been avoided. I’m not sure why it happened. I hope that no one wandered too far, especially into any of the areas in Terminal C where cell service is spotty, because they easily could have missed the second announcement.
People quickly got back into line and soon enough we were boarding, but by that point things were getting stressed and chaotic. It was the kind of situation where the gate agents could have solved everything with simple, calm, and clear announcements, but they chose to go in the opposite direction.
Really, I sympathize with gate agents. That said: these were some of the worst I’ve seen. They were rude and aggressive almost as soon as people started lining up, and throughout the whole boarding. I like to give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they were stressed from a long day of dealing with flights, plus the mixup over our delay, not to mention that our flight was oversold, but that isn’t enough to excuse their behavior
They started off the boarding by scolding everyone and telling us to “behave ourselves,” because it was a full flight and all of our bags wouldn’t fit in the overheads. It came across as totally patronizing. Pretty much everyone knows that if you approach a stressful situation aggressively, the other party reacts in kind and the situation escalates. Well, that was exactly what happened here. As they began boarding and started yelling at people with larger carry-ons (even those that fit in the sizer), or infrequent travelers heading on vacation who were less efficient than the road warriors, tempers started to rise, leading to a few angry back-and-forths between the gate agents and the passengers. Obviously, each of these little arguments held up the rest of the passengers waiting on line.
Not only that, but they were mocking some passengers! “Well, you’re not bringing that with you,” they told one woman in a condescending tone. Just before it was our turn to board, they announced that the overheads were full so anything that wouldn’t fit under a seat would have to be gate checked (as we were boarding in zone 4, I was surprised it took so long). The person in front of me was an older man with a small duffel, and they stopped him. “Do you think that’s going to fit under the seat in front of you?” When he said yes, they snapped at him. “Fine, I’m not the one sitting with a bag on top of my feet, not my problem.”
Again, this was a bizarre instance. Even if you sometimes see gate agents who are rushed or harried, it’s out of the norm to see an employee so hostile towards customers. The rest of the flight was fine — the same United 737 fun as usual, with a lot of advertisements and no IFE — but as the aviation writer Jason Rabinowitz pointed out on Twitter (in a different context), it’s amazing how one bad employee can tarnish a whole company.