Missing an upgrade due to a lazy gate agent

I’ve grown accustomed to the inconsistency I experience and witness when flying these days. From above and beyond service all the way down to outright rudeness, it’s not one specific work group that’s exempt from the swings of customer service etiquette.

Last week I observed the laziness of a United Airlines gate agent at Washington Dulles airport. I was flying to Atlanta on a CRJ-700 and had already been upgraded at the 100-hour window for 1Ks. At the gate, I noticed there were nine people on the upgrade list with zero seats left and the notice, “United First has checked in full.”

Boarding commenced and I settled into seat 2A and went back to my Words With Friends game with Alec Baldwin (kidding). About 15 minutes prior to departure, seats 1D and 1F were still unoccupied and I heard a gentleman in 4D ask the flight attendant in coach about upgrading as he was on the list and noticed the empty seats.

The coach flight attendant advised the purser (do they call the lead FA a purser on regional airlines?) and she told the gate agent who arrived a moment or two later with the flight’s paperwork for the pilots. There was still a good 10 minutes until scheduled departure time, if not more.

The gate agent replied, “Oh… yes, there were misconnects.” The purser continued, “Can you upgrade him, then?” His reply… “Oh, I’d have to go change it in the system. Just tell him the cabin is technically full… it was booked full.”

Proactive gate agents, like many I’ve seen, will process upgrades once realizing there will be misconnects and come find the passengers onboard to give them the open seats. This agent, however, was just plain lazy and didn’t do it in advance, nor was willing to sacrifice a minute or two to investigate if that customer was next on the list.

I couldn’t hear what the coach flight attendant said to the passenger, but I did hear his response, “Okay, that’s understandable.” Ack! No it’s not, actually. Granted IAD-ATL is a relatively short flight and the service difference is incredibly minor between cabins, but that’s not the point. The gate agent basically blew off a valid request when there was enough time to check. I know they prefer to shut the cabin door 10-minutes prior, but that hasn’t been happening lately in my experience.

If it were me and I knew I was next on the list and saw two open seats, I’d approach the gate agent myself and kindly request to be upgraded. It helps that I know a thing or two about the process, of course, but for this other passenger, while he seemed appeased, I truly wonder if that’s his actual sentiment.

I’d like to think the laziness I witnessed is the exception and not the norm, but as I type this from my Business Class seat on a United 777, I see one open seat in the cabin when there was a list of 53 passengers awaiting an upgrade this morning (and I don’t think it’s an INOP seat).

I’ll be in the air as this post goes live for another long day of flying. Fortunately, all my upgrades cleared in advance.


  1. I had a similar experience back in March ’09 (I think ) when UDU just started. I was #1 from ORD-SEA and could see 4B on a 757 open. I spoke with a FA, who then spoke with the purser and then GA. Gate agent took no action, but once we hit 10,000 ft the purser came and escorted me up to 4B mentioning it was my lucky day 🙂

    I actually had this happen again, although not to me, but someone I had met on a flight before. It’s discouraging that some GA’s won’t take that extra step, but encouraging when FA’s and pursers make up for it!

  2. The agents that work the UA IAD CRJ gates are THE WORST I have encountered. Bad experience after bad experience. Rude, surly, vindictive. I’ve never experienced anything like it in the UA system. I think a big part of it is that they’re overworked down there. They have to put an absurd number of planes through some of those gates.

    (btw, I’m a 1K.)

  3. If I were Mr. 4D, my immediate thought would have been “voucher!”. I love when things go wrong on United. 🙂

  4. I had that happen on US Air once, when I was sitting in coach and was at the top of the upgrade list. The flight crew pulled a crew member from Coach and put him in the FC seat instead.

  5. If the GA did upgrade someone so close to departure, wouldn’t he/she need to go back to the gate, process the upgrade, issue a new BP, and then print new paperwork/passenger manifests? Maybe I’m naive, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to that a GA wouldn’t want to risk a late departure by doing all of this. I’m not familiar with UA – was any official policy not followed?

  6. @SEABrad: Now that’s a proactive purser!
    @HansGolden: Agreed… the UX crew is a different breed of GA at IAD.
    @Gene: That’d be me, too… $200!
    @Evan: Does US provide vouchers for service failures?
    @Haloastro: Yes, that agent would have had to go back & work the upgrade list for the misconnects, but it’s honestly a negligible amount of time to process. I actually don’t think it’s policy to process misconnects, necessarily, but I’ve seen it done much more often than not.
    @roadwarriorette: Good to know about AA.

  7. Out of IAD last year on UX, I was #1 on the list and was told “Checked in full, sorry” by the GA. On board, there were two empties up front and the FA came back and said “Are there any volunteers to sit up front? We need folks from the last X rows to move forward because of weight distribution.” I was in an exit row one row ahead of the rows asked to “volunteer” to sit in business class. Two folks were chosen and escorted to the front. Yes, it was a short flight and yes, I know they move people because of weight. But there was no option for the person who was “owed” that seat (me) to get access to it. Volunteers? Really? Laziness.

  8. Surprisingly on Tuesday on my flight ATL-IAD also on a CR7 (I am guessing we were on the same $165 fare !) I was upgraded ahead of time, and even til checkin, the seat next to me 1D was still open. And at the gate, no one on the upgrade list at all, so 1D was left open for the flight.

    Thuesday was really an odd day, as after ATL-IAD, I connected to the 2 class 763 IAD-SFO (wanted to do 3 class 777 like you do too for IAD-LAX, but I have to do redeye SFO-ORD in order to qualify for the last day of UA DEQM), the seat map for that 763 for some odd reason from row 29 AB DEF HJ all the way to the back are open. At the screen by the gate, it showed there were 135 seats left, and the GA made an announcement that the flight is heavy in the front of the plane (no I didn’t get the ugrade). It was really odd for a 763 flying transcon half empty, it doesn’t seems like there are many misconnect due to weather, as the seat maps shows the same thing when I bought the ticket a week ago.

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