Air travel, for me, is an exercise in bad karma. Whenever I fly, I hope with all my heart that the worst travel nightmares befall my fellow passengers. I pray for alarm clocks that don’t go off in time; cars that break down on the way to the airport; gates that are miles apart for tight connections. I want desperately for somebody to miss their flight, so that I might take their seat on the plane. Why do I need such negativity in order to travel anywhere? Because I fly standby.
There are several different reasons why one might fly standby. If you have already paid for a ticket and booked your flight but for some reason miss that flight, you are placed on “standby” for a later flight for which you have no prior reservation. The same process applies if you voluntarily choose to try and take an earlier flight than the one you booked.
The highest priority standby passengers, the ones most likely to land an open seat, are involuntary standby customers, paying passengers who had their flights cancelled or itineraries changed by the airline.
Next comes voluntary standby customers, who have paid to fly but are voluntarily trying to take a different flight.
Last of all are pass riders, or non-revenue standbys, like me. These travelers, airline employees or their dependents, choose not to purchase a ticket but fly exclusively on a “space available” basis. If there are unfilled seats available on an airplane, pass riders can take those seats for free.
While paying passengers are always guaranteed to eventually reach their destination, pass riders can only show up to the airport, wait at the gate and pray for a seat to open up. Thanks to my mother’s job with one of the world’s largest airlines, our family is eligible to fly as pass riders.
Theoretically, this means that I can travel anywhere on the globe without paying for airfare. In practice, it means that I spend entire days at the airport rushing around to different gates, obsessively checking boarding lists, pleading with airline agents, trying to keep track of my checked bags, looking up convoluted connections I could make to reach my intended destination, and constantly making contingency plans for the possibility that I might not be able to get on a single flight…
So, fun weekend jet sets are a no. The hassle and stress of flying as a pass rider means that I only use this method for the most essential of journeys. However, with three children away at colleges all many hundreds of miles from home, my family relies heavily on standby to save on travel costs.
Usually, we schedule trips for times that are outside of the typical holiday/vacation cycle, when planes naturally have vacancies. Then there’s no need for wishful thinking of miseries upon fellow travelers.
But traveling to and from school, which necessarily takes place at seasonal intervals, has forced my family and me to experience for the first time the nightmare of flying standby during the busiest travel times of the year.
For example, there’s the time last year when I tried to fly from Newark home to Chicago for Thanksgiving. The night before the last day of classes, I saw that a snow storm was expected to hit the East Coast later the next day, exactly the time when I wanted to leave. I knew that if flights were cancelled because of the weather, all the available seats left would go to the passengers who had paid and I would never make it home. At 11 p.m. I started drafting emails to my professors to explain why I wouldn’t be in class the next day: I would be leaving campus on the 4:45 a.m. Dinky and trying to get on a 7 a.m. flight, rather than the 4 p.m. flight I had been planning on.
I slept for just an hour and a half that night, and only made it onto a flight the next day because one of my dreamed-of travel dilemmas miraculously occurred: the plane was so delayed by a mechanical issue that frustrated paying passengers got up and left. I burst into tears in front of the gate agent before she allowed me go in their place, just minutes before the plane finally took off.
That same Thanksgiving, my sister missed fifteen straight flights out of D.C. for two days in a row and eventually had to purchase a ticket to Milwaukee that stopped in Chicago. My brother travelled for two days: he flew from Orange County to San Francisco to Houston to Chicago, once spending the night in the airport and once being pulled off his plane before takeoff because the paying passenger showed up after all.
Ultimately, flying standby is simultaneously a gift and a grief. It allows me to break free of the Princeton bubble and visit my loved ones more often, while forcing me to be flexible in the face of frustration.
I have a list of strategies to survive the ordeal: Pack lots of hoarded late meal snacks to keep energy up. Wear comfortable clothes/shoes for sprinting between terminals. Bring appropriate device chargers and always scope out gates for best outlet spots. Display Princeton gear for maximum respectability/sympathy. Stay positive—negative?— and keep hoping for people to mess up and forfeit their seats.
Recently, I was describing my accumulation of such bad karma to a friend, and she mentioned something made me think of it in a new light. She said that if she happened to miss her plane, she would be comforted to know that at least someone else would be able to fly in her place. She would love for her misfortune to become another’s relief. Her space was not wasted.