Playing “Airline” for the day

There are few things more fun than a behind the scenes view of how companies operate. For a travel junkie like me that means behind the scenes at airport operations, getting to "ride along" for the day while watching how the many people I never get to interact with work together to make sure that my flights run. In other words, getting to play airline for a day.

Thanks to the folks at United Airlines I had that opportunity this weekend. It was AWESOME!

The event was in Tampa, which isn’t so far away that it was a bad thing to have to make the trip. In fact, making the trip also put me over 150K EQMs for the year so that means more upgrade certificates, too. And that was part of the justification I had for making the trip. Even still, when faced with a VDB opportunity I declined to make sure I’d get the tour and I’m incredibly happy I did. Getting to the airport for a 7:45am departure after a night of drinking can be a challenge. In my case it meant no sleep and being still drunk when I got to the boarding area. Whoopsie. No matter; I was running on adrenaline by the time the tours started and there was no holding me back.


The tour involved about 15-20 customers and guests as well as a comparable number of employees from United. It was great to see them come in on the weekend and shmooze with the customers. And, if the few bits I overheard are to be believed, many of them were getting to experience some of the behind the scenes stuff for the first time as well, so it was fun for them, too.

The initial part of the day was meetings with these managers and talking through a number of the different services they represent. One of the guys who helps run the contact centers was available to talk about some of the difficulties being experienced as part of the merger (roughly the same number of calls but handling times are WAY up due to inter-carrier complexities, for example). There were questions about the computer systems merging, the loyalty program (I had more answers than many of the UA employees there on that category) and many other thins. After meeting everyone and talking about the Tampa station and some of the potential future changes it could see (yes, there is a space that could work quite nicely as a United Club once corporate real estate gets through the relocation aspect of the merger) it was time to head out airside for the tours. And by airside, I mean out on to the apron.

We visited a number of different departments on the tour. The maintenance guys have two different roles, working on ad hoc tasks during the day as planes come and go. On the overnight shift they are responsible for running basic scheduled maintenance operations for the planes that RON at the station. Even when there are no flights operating the folks working there are busy.

Flight operations is still split between the Continental and United subsidiaries but progress is being made, with some systems already aligned on the Unimatic platform for dispatch. Still, there are differences in things like fuel planning reporting, where United is a computerized system and the Continental folks are still filling out paperwork by hand and filling the various copies. Pretty interesting differences.

Back inside and up in the terminal we all got to take turns working the various aspects of the gate agent jobs while a flight was boarding. I got out of there before they were forced to handle an oversold F cabin for a flight to Newark but I did get to play with the computer system to make sure that the flight was fully boarded, make the announcements for the few passengers who were late getting to the plane and hand out BPs to the non-revs as they cleared onto the flight. Apparently my announcement style is "a bit curt" (I blame my Newark training) but otherwise I’m apparently pretty good at talking on a PA. Not that it is any surprise; I will talk about anything. We also got to take the final paperwork out to the plane, chat with the crew and close up the door (well, the real employees did that part) and send the plan on its way.

Back outside it was time to get a flight loaded up and ready to push back. In addition to being allowed up the conveyor belt and into the hold of the plane (apparently I have a penchant for finding myself in such areas) we also got to see how the folks working the ramp prioritize loading of the bags, handle the tracking and otherwise make sure that the bags get where they are going. I got to play with the scanner to "load" the bags and even found one that was supposedly missing to help the agents at the ticket counter verify that it was actually checked through as expected.

Finally it was time for the flight to depart. A few last-minute bags came sliding down the chute and were loaded into the plane and then things were sealed up and we walked the plane out for departure. Standing out under the wing as the plane pushed back was awesome. There were definitely a few confused customers on the plan wondering why the guy "working" out there was also waving at them and taking photos. Because I can.

Oh, and I got to drive the jet bridge. Those things handle like a pig and make for a very bumpy ride. Still, I managed to get the wheels back in the red box where they belong after driving around for a minute or so. I think I’ll put that in the "skills" section of my resume next time I apply for a job.

One other very cool thing they showed off was a special baggage cart. As one of a few stations located adjacent to a large military installation the airline is often used to help repatriate remains. The support this function they actually have a dedicated carrier which is specially equipped for the task. Just another little thing they do to make things better for all customers.

And then, sadly, it was time to get back on the plane and head home. I was in and out of Tampa in about 6 hours. Six glorious, wonderfully fun hours of playing with all the toys and getting to experience what operations are like for the airline. On a slow day. With no weather or mechanical issues. Sure, it was the intro-level version of the experience but that didn’t make it any less fun. And the icing on the cake was that my upgrade cleared just as they were about to close the door. A big comfy seat to sleep in on the way home, dreaming happy thoughts of aerophile fun.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. I work for Continental/United in TPA. Happy to see you enjoyed a day with my CO/UA Family. They are wonderful people aren’t they…

  2. Looks like an excellent event and this was indeed for GS/PP and Select Customers… PBI had one recently and I was not in town so could not attend but these “take a look behind the scenes” tours are occurring at most CO/UA stations.

  3. I’m disappointed in this trip report. Surely, you could have talked about the space available in the cargo hold and how many people could be stuffed in there?


    Great report and, like the others have already asked, how’d you get to go? Are there any plans for more events like this in the future?

    1. Sorry that I didn’t provide full specs on the baggage hold and its capacity. It is impressively large. Very low overhead but plenty of room to hold all the bags that folks are checking on a daily basis. 😀

      I got invited to attend the event through a private focus group/message board community that the airline runs. It is invite-only for GS/1K/PPlat/Plat elites. I was very fortunate to get invited in and even more so to have the time available this past weekend to make the trip. It was a blast.

      Keep up the good work, Sue G. It was clear from the few hours I spent around the terminal that you and your co-workers really do seem to have fun at work and that’s a big part of happy customers, too.

  4. Seth, sounds awesome. From the original description of the event, I had no idea it would be such a broad tour. I’m sure having it in a smaller station meant that it could be much more in depth. Gotta do something like this!

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