As an airline employee I am entitled to unlimited free travel on flights operated by my employer. This probably sounds like a wonderful perk, and it is, but it’s not the unfettered joy it might seem to be. The key word here, the fly in the globetrotting ointment, is “standby.” Because employees (and spouses/domestic partners, parents, and children) don’t pay for their seats, they’re the airline’s last priority.
Totally fair, since it’s passenger fares that provide our paychecks, but it means that while I might be booked to go on a wonderful trip to, say, Paris, in reality I might go on a wonderful trip to the airport and then home again, or I may decide to go somewhere entirely different, because I can get on a flight to Differentville, but not to Paris. Or, I might get to Paris, then stay an extra day, pinballing around the airport, trying to find any flight out that will take me.
The first time I flew using my benefits I got a quick and painful education about the hazards. I got to my destination with little drama, and thought “yeah, this free travel is the best!” I enjoyed my time away, then reported to the airport at the appropriate time for my trip home. Got on the first leg, which took me to Salt Lake City.
Where I stayed. And stayed. And stayed. In case there is any doubt about what I’m talking about, I got stuck there. First I tried to get on my planned flight, and instead sat in the waiting area and watched as the gate agents closed the door. Foolishly, I still hoped there might be some reprieve, but when they pulled the jetway back and the plane was pushed from the gate, I couldn’t keep kidding myself. I wasn’t getting on that plane.
So, I got online and booked myself onto the next flight to Seattle. Same drill, hope, door closed, jetway retracted, plane moving out to the taxiway … me still sitting in the waiting area. I’m sure you’ve heard that old saw, that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing repeatedly and expect a different result. … I did start to do the same thing again. I booked myself for the NEXT flight to Seattle. Then I waited. There was another guy there who was in my shoes, and he was ahead of me in the standby lineup (I had just started my new job so pretty much everyone was ahead of me). The number didn’t look good. I went to get something to eat. I came back, and discovered the numbers had gotten even worse. My fellow standby traveler and I commiserated.
The plane arrived. The standby list continued to look hopeless. By this time it was about 9 PM. I started looking for a hotel in Salt Lake. Then I started desperately searching for any flight leaving Salt Lake City. It was finally dawning on me that the point wasn’t to find a seat going to Seattle, the point was to find a seat going away from Salt Lake. Anything to get out of an airport that was turning out to be a black hole for standby passengers.
I looked around me. I noticed that the gate next to mine had a departure for Boise. Hey, Boise is in the Pacific Northwest, right? Kind of? When the gate agent was free I approached him and asked what my chances were. My chances were excellent. One hundred percent excellent, actually. But, they were leaving soon and I would have to decide … stay and hope to get the flight to Seattle, which was still 3 seats in the hole, or take the sure thing.
I had exhausted my interest in the Salt Lake airport, so I went to Boise. Took my seat, then got on Hotwire in the 5 minutes I had before they closed the airplane door and booked a room. The next morning I flew home from Boise, bright and early, arriving a little under 24 hours since I had started my trip.
Another aspect to standby travel is the list of rules about expected behavior. Again, completely fair because standby travel is a privilege and not a right, AND any agent time I take is time they could be giving to paying passengers. The rules boil down to common sense – dress appropriately, don’t get drunk, be polite, use the online booking tools as much as possible rather than monopolize agents’ time.
Apparently this precludes storming the gate agents’ desk and bellowing, “do you know who I am?” Slightly disappointing, since this is something I have always wanted to do, but I can dream.*
*In case anyone connected with my employer is reading this, I am totally kidding. I am always polite and self-sufficient when traveling and would never abuse a gate agent.