Gate agents are often the airline employee that passengers interact with just before boarding a flight. We’ve all heard stories of passengers showing up to the airport and having a gate agent tell them that they’ve been upgraded free of charge. For some of us (myself included) this may have actually happened.
This leads to the popular belief that gate agents are the ones that decide who can and can’t get a free upgrade to business class for even first class. Because of this, many people try to sweet talk gate agents into giving them free upgrades, only to find out that it isn’t as easy as it sounds. So, what’s true and what is urban legend?
Can gate agents give you a free upgrade?
Gate agents can in some scenarios give you a free upgrade, but it’s not easy to do and requires justification.
Let’s take a deep dive into some of the details and see if we can’t help you get a free upgrade someday.
Airlines Are Strict
Although gate agents often do have the power to upgrade your seat, they still have to be careful not to get themselves in trouble for doing so. Airlines have strict policies around passengers getting free upgrades. This leads to gate agents having to follow certain rules to make sure they don’t break airlines policy.
There are a couple reasons why airlines have these policies. First off, they don’t want to make it too easy to get free upgrades. If that were to happen, fewer people would bother paying for the upgrade and instead want it for free. Airlines are a business and need to drive revenue like any other company. This includes making money from passengers looking for a better seat on a flight.
The other reason that airlines have rules around free upgrades is that it can lead to unethical behavior by gate agents and other employees. It wouldn’t be fair to passengers if the friends and family members of gate agents always got free upgrades while everyone else had to pay. Worse yet, gate agents could even end up in an uncomfortable situation where people know that have the ability to give free upgrades and harass them until they do. This would make for a very unpleasant work experience for an already stressful job.
When is a Free Upgrade Possible?
In some cases, you might be in a situation where a gate agent can give you a free upgrade. This typically happens if the flight has oversold it’s coach or economy seats but has unsold seats in business class or first class.
In this case, the airline will want to move some passengers from the coach to the upgraded area of the plane to make sure that everyone can get to their destination without any passengers needing to take a different flight.
If this happens your best odds are to be dressed for the occasion since business class usually has affluent passengers that are dressed more formally than vacation goers. It also helps to make sure you are pleasant and friendly since the staff would never want to upgrade a difficult passenger.
Most airlines have an internal list of passengers based on how often they fly with the airline. If you happen to fly on a specific airline on a regular basis you might be more likely to score a free upgrade based on your status with them. The reason for this is simple – airlines want to keep their best customers happy. They know that if they reward these high value passengers it makes them most likely to keep choosing to fly with them.
If there is an airline you frequent and you find yourself waiting for a flight that doesn’t look completely sold out, it might be worth asking the gate agent if there’s any chance for a seat upgrade. Remember to be friendly and respectful. Nobody wants to go out of their way to helps someone who is being rude or mean.
Can a Gate Agent Get Me a Better Seat?
Switching to a better seat is a much more likely scenario. Often times, shortly before a flight takes off there can be unused seats that go for a premium. This includes aisle seats, exit row seats, seats in empty rows, and those with more legroom.
If the passengers that are supposed to be in these seats didn’t show up for the flight or cancelled last minute, these are often times available for a gate agent to assign. You’re best course of action here is to wait until 30 minutes before the flight and ask the gate agent if they would be willing to give you a different seat.
Just keep in mind that just like with getting an upgrade, it is much more likely to happen if you are friendly and respectful. If the gate agent tells you that they cannot accommodate, leave it at that.
Being a gate agent can be a busy and stressful job. Although they sometimes have the ability to give you a free upgrade or seat accommodation, you should never assume that it’s easy for them to do or that they even can. In some cases, you might get lucky but usually it’s not something they can do for you just because you asked.