March 30, 2011

Why Can't All Gate Agents Be Great Agents?

First, let me say that this post is about three weeks late. It's one of those posts I probably should have pounded out as soon as it happened but then life got in the way.

I am sure everyone who blogs knows just what I'm talking about. But just like the old saying goes, "Better late than never," right?

This is Linda.

Linda works for Delta Airlines at Port Columbus International Airport. I am hoping that Delta will use this photo in their employee handbook under the definition of "Great Gate Agent." Let me tell you why.

I was travelling a few weeks ago on a Sunday morning, bound for a meeting in St. Louis. It was a busy morning at Port Columbus, usually a pretty calm and steady airport, but certainly nothing like the hustle and bustle of Hartsfield in Atlanta, O'Hare in Chicago or LaGuardia in New York, just to name a few.

It was the final day of the Arnold Schwarzenegger Sports Festival, one of the largest body building/fitness conventions in the world. Picture if you will, thousands of extra travelers descending upon the airport, many with huge, bulging muscles, interesting tattoos and carry-on luggage the size of a small Volkswagen.

The check-in kiosks were three deep, the security lines were long and painfully slow and the gate areas were filled with people sitting, standing and laying in various states of consciousness. When I checked in, the computer said my flight was overbooked and asked if I would consider giving up my seat. I clicked through the series of questions and was asked to type in a dollar amount I would consider in exchange for a later flight. (Think but this time I'm the Seller, not the Buyer). I entered in a # not really knowing what was fair or the "going rate" and proceeded to the gate.

As I said, the gates were swarming with travelers and there was a long line of people hoping to get a confirmed seat on the flight. They were all waiting to speak to Linda. Linda was the only agent assigned to this gate. Every other gate seemed to have two or three Delta agents but Linda just stood behind the desk smiling, thanking people for their patience and doing the best she could with the resources she had.

Linda called my name over the intercom (because I must have been one of the few people who chose the "possibly" option when the computer asked about my willingness to change flights) and asked me if I was willing to give up my seat.

"It depends," I said. "What would Delta be prepared to do for my assistance?"

An offer was made to accommodate me on a later flight that would have included three legs instead of two. I politely declined and returned to my seat. I quickly called my wife Ronda, who earlier in her life had been a corporate travel agent, to see what she thought I should do. My schedule was actually somewhat flexible so she suggested I return to see what other options I might have. If I could get a voucher for a flight I could use later, that might be a good decision to consider.

Linda was happy to see me re-approach the counter because it was almost time to board the flight and they still needed "volunteers" or she was going to have to tell some passengers that they wouldn't be on this flight. Barely knowing this woman, but having a good sense of her personality, I am guessing she didn't want to deliver this message to anyone on that Sunday morning.

I asked her if there was anything else that might be available if I accepted the change and she offered an upgrade to first class on the later flights, a food voucher for use in the airport while I waited and a voucher for a round-trip flight to be used in the next 12 months. I willingly became the 4th and final volunteer to help Linda get this plane off the ground with a full manifest of happy travelers.

The way Linda handled the commotion and congestion of the gate was incredible. Her demeanor was steady and calm and her smile never wavered. She never asked for assistance from another gate attendant. Finally, one of the nearby gates realized that between the passengers deplaning off the newly arrived plane, the tagging of carry-on's and re-ticketing of passengers and the boarding process, Linda might need a helping hand.

Do You Like to Travel?

When you stop to think about it, there are a lot of people involved in a passenger's experience while travelling; From the sky caps to the check-in staff, the TSA crew to the airport staff and servers, airline employees on the ground and in the air and certainly the pilots who fly these large metal tubes through the sky from one place to another saving us time getting to our destinations.

Imagine if all of them were as helpful, kind, polite and knowledgeable as my friend Linda was. Wouldn't travel be a truly enjoyable experience? Wouldn't it be something you would tell others about? Wouldn't it be a great example to have every service provider learn from?

One of Delta's slogans in the 80's was "Airlines Are the Same; Only People Make the Difference." I'm not sure when Linda started working for Delta but I guarantee that she was the type of person they were talking about when they coined that slogan, that's for sure.

Thanks for helping me Linda. I hope the rest of your day got easier. And I know that the next time I fly Delta from Port Columbus, I hope my plane departs from your gate.