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The Art of Flying Standby

Couple at Airport
Allianz - Couple of Airport

I had just started driving up to western New York to watch an opening Thursday Night NFL game. And, of course, my buddy and I had planned and packed to tailgate well before kick-off. But just north of Fredericksburg, Va., my SUV’s transmission decided it didn’t want to make the near-500-mile trek.

I really don’t blame it.

As I slithered home on back roads and good faith, my friend called up his friend who works for a major airline. I heard the term “standby” several times. I wondered what was up. Within minutes, we changed cars and hustled to the airport, shedding our tailgate supplies and extra bags along the way.

Out Great American Football & Tailgate Road Trip had just transformed into an entirely new standby flight adventure. I wasn’t sure what I was in store for and exactly when (and if) I would get home.

But over the next three days, I learned that flying stand-by was a mostly reliable and absolutely cost-effective way to get from Point A to B to C — hang out for a while — and finally reach Point D: home.

Flying standby when you’ve booked a flight

Before TSA guidelines and enhanced screenings, flying stand-by meant something altogether different than it means today. Back then, you could hang out a ticket counter, hoping to land a seat without a reservation of any sort. But those days are no more. 

Today stand-by refers to one common and one less common scenario. You’ve probably at least tried the first: attempting to switch your flight with an airline ticket agent when you already have a booked seat on another.

Maybe you got out of a business presentation a bit early — and hoped to miss taking the redeye home. Or perhaps the opposite happened, and your flight was delayed, causing you to miss your connection. The airline may have booked you for a seat tomorrow, but you’re hoping on a wing and a prayer to make it back today. So you’ll wait around with an unconfirmed ticket and no seat assignment until all ticket passengers have boarded, even the late ones. (You’ll secretly wish they don’t show up. It’s OK. We understand.). You’ll also wait for any stand-by passengers who have preference over you, for one reason or another. And then maybe, just maybe, they’ll call your name to sit next to a flight attendant, up against the bulkhead.

There is an important distinction here between flying standby and outright changing your flight, the latter of which likely requires lofty fees. Because you’re not booking a seat, but simply taking up a seat that would go unsold, you’ll only pay a nominal standby fee. Bonus: you get to keep all your miles and points accrued through flying standby in this scenario. 

Flying standby with a Buddy Pass

As you might have noted from my story, I didn’t have an existing flight reservation. I didn’t even know I was going to fly at all that day until two hours before I boarded the plane.

So I booked a Buddy Pass. Rather, a friend of mine booked it for me. There is nothing wrong or illegal with this arrangement; current and former airline employees are given an allotment of these passes to use each year as they please, whether it’s jet-setting to exotic locales solo or sharing them with family and friends.

But these Buddy Passes are hardly mile-high Golden Tickets. Far from it. While the fare is attractive — I paid about $70 each way for a roundtrip flight that would have cost a few hundred dollars – you’re still at the bottom of the pecking order. In addition to being the absolute last seating priority, you may be asked to meet certain conditions. For example, we were told not to wear any vulgar T-shirts or flip-flops. In other words, my whole outfit was shot.

There are a few other drawbacks to Buddy Passes, including the fact that you may not get to sit with any travel buddies. Additionally, in contrast to the first standby scenario we described, you cannot use Buddy Pass flights toward any airline loyalty programs, such miles or points. 

Tips for flying standby

Flying standby is an airport adventure that you can never truly control. But you can help increase the odds of getting to your destination and back without wasting hours in the terminal lounge by following these tips:

  • Scout it out.
    Whether you’re searching flight availability on an airline’s site or app — or the employee who hooked you up with a Buddy Pass has the ability to do so — look for flights with a large number of open seats. You can get a good sense of which flights will be tight and which you should easily make by doing a little homework. One note: taking standby intentionally during holidays or other peak travel periods is not advised. You could be sitting around for a lot longer than expected.
  • Download the airline app.
    Because flying standby requires you to make quick decisions and act in real time, you’ll want to have your flight info easily accessible.
  • Check in early.
    Remember, while you’re the bottom boarding priority, you still may be competing for a seat against other standby flyers. Check in early to get the edge. And pack as light as possible so you’re not juggling luggage as you potentially sprint from gate to gate.
  • Be seen. Be heard. But don’t be annoying.
    Being assertive, chatting with the gate agent, and sincerely sharing details about wanting to get home to see the kids isn’t a bad idea. Continually pestering agents is a bad idea that could backfire.
  • Never leave early. Ever.
    You never know when and why passengers might duck out of a flight at the last moment. Stay until the flight is closed. Then wait another 10 minutes. You might be surprised what opens up.

As for my own Buddy Pass standby experience, it went smoother than imagined. Our friend at the airline scouted a clear path from Richmond to Boston to Buffalo. We made it to our football game without a hitch. He did caution that the Boston-to-Richmond return leg might be crowded. We didn’t make our original flight — and I took the last one out while my friend flew back in the morning. All in all, our impromptu standby experiment worked out like a well-scouted plan.

And fortunately, my transmission repair bill was as reasonable as my airfare.

Mike Ward is a copywriter, family columnist and sometimes comic who lives in Richmond, Va. with his wife, two young kids and two mutts. He likes long road trips and rooting for losing sports teams. 

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Feb 17, 2017