Standby All Passengers

posted by : Jon Kroupa on 04/03/2012
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I go through three different phases when traveling standby. The first phase is the most common, where I am happy to be saving money and have all the optimism in the world that the flights will favor me. The second phase is when I'm actually sitting at the airport seeing people with higher priority but possibly less moral character or worthiness getting a seat before me (during this stage I consider getting a job from an airline so I can have higher priority). The third phase is when I get home after a long and stressful experience of watching flight after flight leave without me, vowing to never fly standby again and proclaiming the benefits of how a paid for seat far outweighs any monetary advantage to a buddy pass.

My Japan trip was no exception. Several weeks before the trip I looked around at a few flights and saw it would cost no less than $1400 to fly coach to Japan. I was smug in the knowledge that for $581 I would not only be saving tons of money but I could potentially get upgraded to first class for free. That was all well and good even a week before the planned departure. Then the inevitable happened. The night before leaving all the flights filled with both legitimate passengers and evil airline employees who prey on those with less standby priority than them. What had been several open routes to Japan turned into a flight with 3 seats available and 5 people listed. Always at the bottom of the list, my friend and I hoped that a couple of people wouldn't show up for their flight.

We flew to Portland first, and astoundingly were upgraded to first class for the 2 hour flight. I felt this was a good omen, as standbys almost never get first class on domestic flights from Delta. Their sky rewards customers usually get the available seats. Then we arrived in Portland, and I started hoping that every other incoming flight would be delayed. 20 minutes before the flight was supposed to leave the gate agent called all the standbys up to the desk (there were 4 of us there) and said they hadn't been cleared to allow standby passengers yet due to weight and balance restrictions on the plane. It wasn't until 5 minutes before the flight was to leave that we were cleared. We got the very last seats on the plane (from what I saw). I sat on the very last row on the aisle. 10.5 hours later we arrived in Japan, weary, but happy to have arrived on our planned day. I looked at the flights going home and they were all wide open. What could go wrong in a week?

One week later everything had gone wrong. The flights that were supposed to be open had filled up for the most part, but more astoundingly every flight leaving Japan for the West Coast had between 20-40 standbys listed, on each flight. Of course being the bottom dweller buddy-pass passengers that we were, we were put at the bottom of any list we wanted to try. Most of the flights had a few business class seats and a few coach seats. The flight to San Francisco had 24 business class seats available and 1 coach seat, with 25 people listed on the flight. Add my friend and I and we grew that list to 27. That meant if all the passengers showed up and all the standbys showed up we definitely weren't going to fit on the plane.

We arrived at the airport several hours early, because there is really nothing to do in Japan on Mondays, on account of everything being closed. And then we played the waiting game. In the US most of the airports Delta operates in have monitors which show standby priority, seats assigned, and seats available. It was probably done so the standbys who are going crazy with anxiety don't keep harassing the gate agents. They don't seem to have these monitors in other places though. So we sat and waited for a long long time. Eventually the plane arrived and the gate agents started getting everything squared away. I figured best case senario we would get coach on the way home, but we at least we would make it.

Imagine my surprise when we actually got assigned business class seats for the 8.5 hour flight to San Francisco. If you haven't flown international first class (business class) it is a wonderful thing. They never stop feeding you and you have all the things for sale in coach given to you for free (except the cartons of cigarettes).

We arrived in San Francisco feeling pretty good. When I had checked the flights early getting out of that airport had looked pretty easy. Unbeknowest to me San Francisco is a notoriously difficult airport to get out of flying standby. They often have delayed and canceled flights, so customers who actually paid for seats are bumped for flights and standbys are left out in the California cold (such as it is). The first flight left completely full with 15 standbys not on board. Those were all moved to the next flight. The second flight left 3 hours later, I think they mangaged to get 9 standbys on board, but there had been people already listed before the 15 from the previous flight had been bumped. The third flight (another 3 hours of waiting) had a situation similar to getting out of Tokyo. There were enough seats for all but two passengers. Who were those two people? They were us.

We sat watching those monitors as people were cleared and assigned seats, and we slowly crawled towards the top, but the numbers were against us. Best case senario looked like only one of us would get on the flight. Then another miracle happened. A standby party of 2 didn't show (probably the bleak outlook of the flight crushed their will to live). After waiting in the San Francisco airport for something like 9 hours my friend and I once again got the last two seats on the flight and made it home.

I walked off the plane fully committed to buying plane tickets like a good honest American from now on, no matter what the cost! We'll see how that attitude holds up. I imagine in a little while I'll forget the hopeless feeling of anxiety that comes from planes leaving without me and I'll revert back to phase one. Overall I've been very lucky in my standby endeavors. Occasionally I've been delayed leaving for a destination by a day, but I've never failed to make flights home in the same day.

Flying standby on different airlines can lead to different experiences. On US Airways if someone with a higher priority shows up in the last 30 seconds of the flight, they might get your seat (if you got the last one). While it has never happened to me, I know people who have been pulled from the plane because of a last minute arrival of a higher priority person (no doubt some kind of airline deity). US Airways also does not let you upgrade to first class for free, rather they let you pay $20 domestically or $100 internationally for the bleak opportunity to be upgraded. You only pay this if you actually get the upgrade, but the free upgrades from Delta are very attractive in comparison.

Southwest (at least 10 years ago) had a nice system for standbys. The person who checked in first got to be at the top of the list. Regardless of who showed up or how long the person who acquired the buddy pass had been with the company the list didn't change. From what I saw the lists were often hand written, so it could have been the list didn't change because of the difficulty in rewriting it. So on the plus side you aren't going to have your seat stolen from some last minute retiree who shows up with 30 seconds to spare. On the downside you are flying Southwest, which doesn't believe in seat assignments. Most full flights you get on as a standby passenger with other airlines you have maybe a 95% chance on being in the middle seat. On a Southwest flight your chances of being in a middle seat increase to 103.5%. You will also probably be stuck between the two people who were too big for their window and aisle seats. But at least you got on the plane right?

Post Script: I've been informed that Southwest really will prioritize employees above buddy passes, even last minute. I'm glad I never experienced that. All buddy pass users enjoy the same priority though. On Delta and US Airways even the buddy passes are prioritized by date of hire.

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I was pulled off of a US Airways flight right before takeoff. The woman next to me was really angry about it.

David Kroupa : Apr 16th 2012, 16:58

Great post! Very funny! You could possibly try to sell (or give) it to a national venue.

Btw, I don't know why I'm not seeing the link to these posts on FB. I just read it and the 4 hour body diet today.

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