Much has been said about the perceived poor quality of service at most major airline ticket counters in the USA. This entry, gleaning as it does from the unique experiences one Researcher has had working the other side of the counter, attempts to show airline ticket counters in a more favourable light.
First of all, it has never been the sole purpose of the airline employee to completely disrupt your flight plans, whether they happen to be for business or pleasure. When unfortunate events occur, it only makes their job that much harder. The last thing that the staff want to see is a flight cancelled - the paperwork is horrendous!
When a flight is cancelled, every single passenger on that flight has to be re-booked, sometimes on another carrier (which involves a whole host of ticketing problems). All the luggage that was loaded on the aircraft for the original flight needs to be unloaded, re-tagged with the new flight number, and loaded again, sometimes on an aircraft ten gates away. During this whole time frame, more flights are pulling into the gates and each one needs to be serviced as soon as possible. Everyone has tight connections these days.
So there you are in line when your flight is cancelled or delayed. What do you do? The first thing to remember is 'Don't Panic!'. The agents behind the counter are doing everything they can to accommodate you as rapidly as possible. It is difficult, waiting in long lines; but if you can keep the anger levels down you will have already won half the battle.
The first thing you can do to ensure a smooth trip is to always, always, always show up at least an hour prior to your listed departure time for domestic travel (USA) and at least two hours prior to departures for international flights. Most airlines have cut-off times for boarding flights and these usually range between ten to 30 minutes prior to departure. If your flight is scheduled to leave at 7.30am, count on the gate being closed at 7.20am, if not earlier. And just because there is someone standing at the gate does not mean that you will be getting on the flight. Chances are the paperwork has already been completed and the flight closed out.
Another advantage of showing up early is that it will help to ensure that the seat you paid for will be the seat you travel in. Just because you bought a ticket and hold a 'confirmed' (gate agents, try not to snicker too loudly) reservation does not mean anything. The closer you show up to departure time the more you increase your chances of being 'bumped' (the term agents use is 'invol-reroute') if the flight is oversold - a term that frightens most people even though they have no idea what it is all about.
Flights are oversold to ensure that when a plane leaves the gate there are no empty seats on board as empty seats equal empty wallets for the airlines. A great deal of research has been done and it is fact that there will be a percentage of people who, despite holding tickets and reservations for a given flight, will never reach the airport. The airlines compensate for this by generally overselling the flight by a few seats and it is rare to see it go over two or three. So there is a method to the madness and despite what you might think, there really isn't some secret formula for determining who will and will not get on the flight. It is as simple as 'the last to show, the first to go' when a passenger needs to be removed from a flight.
But the overselling of flights can also work to your advantage if your travel plans are flexible. If you are going on vacation try planning an extra travel day and when you check in, state that you would like to volunteer if the flight is, or becomes, oversold. Just about every airline will compensate you, though it does tend to vary. Some will give you frequent flyer miles, other will give you a free round trip ticket. I have heard that in some cases, an airline will even give you cash. So if you have the extra time, try and take advantage of the system. The 'worst' that can happen is that you will depart on your original flight.
If your flight is delayed for more than an hour, ask for some free phone cards. Most airlines have them and will give them out if you ask politely. Should your delay occur around a meal time, ask for a meal voucher. You take these to any number of restaurants and have either a free, or deeply discounted, meal.
There may be times when the delay will turn into a cancellation. This could be for any number of reasons, but there are still things you can do to ensure an enjoyable trip to your destination. Most cancellations are for very valid reasons, such as mechanical failures, problems with flight scheduling, aircraft damage, weather, etc. If it is safe and legal to do so, a plane will go. Flights just aren't cancelled for the fun of it. (And just because the sun is shining at your departure city means nothing. Your destination may be fogged in, experiencing severe weather, etc. The point is, you never know for certain, so do not assume that the airline staff don't).
If you are unhappy about the arrangements, ask for a free upgrade. Should the next flight on your chosen carrier get you to your destination much later than expected, ask nicely to be accommodated on another carrier. The airlines do not have to do this as most are legally allowed to keep you as a passenger for at least four hours before they even have to look at other means. But if you smile and are polite, most agents will do what they can for you and overlook this technicality.
Should the flight that cancels happen to be the last flight of the day, you are entitled to overnight accommodations at a nearby hotel, transportation included. Most times you will have a choice of lodgings and it would be in your best interest to ask the agent which one they would recommend. Also, ask for an overnight kit, which will have most things you will need for your personal hygiene. Do not count on the hotel having these items. It is always better to ask.
The absolute worst thing you can do is approach the agent with either an air of anger or superiority. Yes, you may be a world traveller who flies thousands of miles every year. This does not make you any more special than the grandma going out to see her grandkids, or the devastated man flying home for his Aunt's funeral. Everyone in that line has plans or appointments or meetings and the airlines really do try to treat each passenger fairly and with care.
If you think you know a thing or two about the airline industry, keep that out of your mind when you are standing at the counter. You have never had to work with the horribly outdated computer systems while people scream in your face. You have never had to load bags in the pouring rain, nor have you ever had the joy of eating hot glycol during de-icing season. The aviation business is very stressful and demanding. Until you have been on the other side of the counter, you will never understand.
So smile, be polite, and maybe even tell a joke. You'd be surprised at what it might get you in the end.