Ever wonder what it’s like to be “that guy?” Specifically, when trying to get on a particular flight, standing up at the kiosk as the gate agent scans everyone’s boarding pass? Well people, I had the distinct opportunity to be “that guy.” Welcome to the world of flying via standby.
What is “standby” flying? Well, I’ll tell you. People who are on a standby list for a particular flight have the option to snag any available seats left over once the boarding process is complete. By “standard passengers,” I, of course, mean people who actually paid money (or miles) for their ticket. Flying standby is most commonly a result of a friend or relative working for that specific airline, or regional affiliate. My first week being a part of this kind of travel was entertaining, exciting, nerve-wrecking, aggravating, and unorthodox, to say the least. Here’s how it all got started.
As an intern with the Flight Operations and Administration departments for a regional affiliate for both United and Delta, I am allowed to have flight privileges. These privileges allow me to travel by putting myself on standby lists. But wait, you want to hear the best part? It’s free!
Now let’s not get too carried away. There’s always a catch to a deal this good. Flying via standby is based off of seniority in regards to the account holder. Seniority can be a powerful ally or your worst enemy when it comes to traveling.
Moving ahead to my personal experiences with this, I was given a week off from my internship. I was recently registered for my flight benefits, and I decided to fly home for the Fourth of July and surprise my family. The first leg was quite simple. Since it was the morning of the 4th, the plane was half empty. I had no issues flying from St. Louis to Cleveland. Being at home, seeing family and friends was very nice and well needed. Since I go to school in Florida, I don’t get to see them very often.
The next phase of my standby experience occurred a few days later, when I decided to fly to upstate New York to visit my grandmother. One of my buddies dropped me off at the airport incredibly early that day. Getting through security was a breeze. Having my company identity card and boarding pass ready to go, I was at the gate within twenty minutes of leaving the car. I was actually able to catch up with some co-workers at the airport in Cleveland before my flight – I was an operations intern there a few years prior, so it was nice reconnecting with them.
Things became too exciting for comfort, however, when I saw the standby list go from thirteen seats open, to being overbooked by seven. My jaw dropped, and I proceeded to my gate.
The flight from Cleveland to Chicago before my scheduled leg experienced a maintenance delay during takeoff, and had to come back to Cleveland. People were suddenly rebooked onto my flight, which explained the sudden change to the standby list. I started to become nervous and realized that my original itinerary was about to go out the window.
As I stood by the gate and watched all standard passengers walk onto the plane, I realized the chances of me getting on were incredibly slim at best. I did, however, do a great job in remaining calm, or at least I think. I was able to book myself on the next connecting flight from Chicago O’Hare to Rochester, NY if in the event I didn’t make it. To my surprise though, there were two seats left on the flight and I was able to get on. But WAIT, it gets better. As soon as I got to my seat, the captain announced we had another maintenance issue and we had to de-plane. Just my luck, right?
While I stood back in the terminal and watched people freak out to no end, I realized that things could be much worse. Our maintenance delay, however, then turned into a weather issue. Lighting and heavy rain came over from the west and delayed us even further by twenty-five minutes. Skipping ahead, the flight did eventually leave Cleveland and got to Chicago relatively quickly.
After a quick and needless relay from one terminal to the other, realizing that my connecting flight was just one gate over from where we came in, I made my second flight from ORD to Rochester (ROC) by MERE seconds. My grandmother found my hectic afternoon to be quite interesting. Nonetheless, she was glad I made it!
The journey back from Rochester to Cleveland was something else. I booked for a flight in the late morning. The business crowd already travelled through, so the airport was kind of dead. It started off with a half-hour delay due to a late inbound aircraft. Once the plane arrived, I saw passengers get off and walk towards baggage claim. The ground crew had a fast turn-around for our flight. The boarding process started not even ten minutes after the plane arrived at the gate. The morning rush was already over, so the plane had plenty of seats open. Getting to Chicago wasn’t an issue.
However, O’Hare was quite a workout. While the morning was calm, I ran into the business travel Friday evening rush in Chicago. Catching a flight to Cleveland was near impossible. The seniority concept was defeating me repeatedly, and I missed flight after flight. To my luck though, my girlfriend, who was graciously helping me with flight updates and openings, called me and asked why I didn’t try for Akron-Canton Regional Airport (KCAK); just forty-five minutes south of Cleveland.
After mentally kicking myself for a few minutes, I saw a flight departing for Akron thirty minutes later. After going from terminal to terminal throughout the day, I had to do it once more, except in a full sprint. I can’t lie, there were a few shoves being put out there, BUT, I did make the flight. Landing in Akron that Friday evening was incredibly relieving. Oddly enough, it was also the day NBA superstar LeBron James announced his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The atmosphere at the airport was filled with excitement and joy, seeing that LeBron is originally from Akron!
The final leg of my week off came that Sunday morning. Luckily, Cleveland to Chicago had no delays, and I was able to snag a seat on the flight. Recalling my fun experiences a few days prior in Chicago, I decided to book myself on every O’Hare to St. Louis flight for precautions. The afternoon took an interesting turn however, when I caught glimpse of Major League Baseball legend Joe Torre walk past me in the terminal.
He was accompanied by (I believe) his son. I wanted to turn around and say hi, but he seemed to be in a rush, like most people walking through O’Hare! If I had to guess, I’d say he was catching a flight up to Minneapolis-St. Paul for the MLB All-Star Game! Sorry guys, unfortunately since I had no real chance to turn around and catch up to him, there are no pictures. He definitely rocked the “MLB” polo he had on though…keeping it classy.
When it came time for my flight back to St. Louis, I could see the amount of people piling up at the gate. I was getting nervous, and had flight information up on my phone. I could see the standby list get larger and larger as the time came closer. What worried me the most, however, was that the flights afterwards were also filling up with overbooked seats and standby lists longer than the terminal itself. The process became nerve-wrecking.
I kept my boss at work appraised of the situation, if in the event I didn’t make it back to St. Louis in time for work the next day. My heart rate suddenly increased. Then, out of nowhere, I heard my name called over the intercom. I quickly raced up to the kiosk and confronted the gate agent. She asked to see my company identity card. After I showed it to her, she then handed me a boarding pass with a seat number on it. I felt as if the biggest weight was taken off of my shoulders! I was lucky enough to get on the noon flight and return to St. Louis with no issues!
There are two things that I’ve learned thus far. The first is to never have any solid plans. Itineraries always take an interesting turn when flying on standby. The second item is I will have a very deep and meaningful relationship with Chicago O’Hare International Airport this summer. I honestly don’t mind though. I see it as a major opportunity for epic plane spotting. And I know I’m not the only one who has an appreciation for it. You have to be an AvGeek to understand!
I do have a few more places I want to visit before my internship concludes, so I’ll make the best of it.