What it’s really like to fly standby as an airline employee
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Free travel is one of the most enticing perks of working in the airline industry, but there’s a major asterisk involved. Airline employees have access to non-revenue travel, meaning you’ll only get a seat if there’s space available. For those who like a good gamble, showing up to the airport without a confirmed seat can be thrilling yet incredibly nerve-wracking.
Back in summer 2019 — also known as the golden year for air travel — I was an intern at JetBlue Airways. One of the perks was standby travel, and during those 10 weeks, I wanted to take full advantage of my (short-lived) benefits. Overall, it was a success, as I flew more than 30 times that summer, with seven of those flights on the coveted JetBlue Mint business class.
During my internship, I learned a lot about standby travel and the airline industry as a whole. While standby travel is certainly not for the faintest of hearts, there are ways to get good at it and mitigate stress from all of the uncertainty.
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How standby travel works as an airline employee
Whether you’re a pilot, flight attendant, gate agent or even an intern, you may have standby travel privileges that get you free flights on the airline you’re working for and (potentially) on partner airlines. While you can travel for free within the 50 U.S. states, any international taxes and fees will apply if you’re flying out of the country.
While the process works differently for each airline, the employees were ranked on a priority list based on seniority and role at JetBlue. The standby list went from senior officials, other full-time employees and their travel buddies, part-time employees (including interns) and partner airline employees. Occasionally, full-time employees could get one-time priority passes and jump to the top of the standby list, bypassing senior officials on the ranking.
As an intern, I was considered pretty much at the bottom of the pack — below full-time employees but above partner airline employees. Regardless of your place on the list, all non-revenue travelers must show up at the gate and wait to be issued a ticket. If the flight was considerably empty, the gate agent may go ahead and ticket you at the start of the boarding process. But if the flight only had a few seats left — or was completely full — all non-revenue passengers must wait until the end of the boarding process for standby seats to clear.
With this much uncertainty, it’s essential that you only travel with a carry-on or personal bag, as you never know which flight you’ll end up taking that day. Since I only had free time to travel on weekends, this wasn’t a problem as I never needed to check a bag in the first place.
Since JetBlue only offers paid upgrades to its passengers, it was easy for non-revenue flyers to snag Even More Space (EMS) seats or even Mint seats on qualifying routes. Interns only had access to JetBlue-operated flights, but full-time employees could fly standby on partner airlines as well, widening the opportunities for international trips.
Finally, in terms of dress and behavior, you’re supposed to blend in with the rest of the crowd while looking neat and polished. For example, you’re not allowed to wear flip-flops or sweatpants as a non-revenue passenger.
Your standby benefits extend to immediate family
At JetBlue, your standby benefits as a full-time employee extend to your immediate family (spouse, dependent children and parents). Airline employees will also get buddy passes throughout the year, handing them out to extended family or friends.
As an intern, I could extend my travel privileges to my parents and one designated travel companion. I brought my mom with me on several trips that summer, and I think she enjoyed the standby privileges as much as I did.
How to work the odds in your favor
Now that I’ve given a brief rundown, here’s how you can work standby travel in your favor. While some of it’s luck, there’s actually more strategy involved.
First, I had access to a separate website where I’d book non-revenue tickets and monitor flight loads in real time. For example, my new intern friend, Peter, and I wanted to start easy. That means we weren’t interested in flying a competitive route such as New York (JFK) to Los Angeles (LAX) from the get-go.
Instead, we picked New York (JFK) to Nantucket on the first flight of the day — 7:10 a.m. We checked the flight loads the night before, and since there were 60+ empty seats, we knew we could hop on this flight with no issues. We were ticketed as soon as we arrived at the gate.
A perk of standby travel that I hadn’t considered before is that you have flexibility in your travel plans. We did a quick day trip in Nantucket, and there were plenty of flights going back to New York that day (JFK and LGA). While we were initially intending on leaving around dinnertime, we decided to hop back on the flight around 4 p.m. so we could get back to Manhattan earlier.
On my way home from San Diego, I wanted to try out Mint for the first time, but other airline employees had bumped me out of place on the list. Instead, I decided to book a flight home to Boston-Logan International Airport (BOS) to snag a Mint seat and then jumped on a flight from Boston to New York (LGA).
What happens when there’s not a seat available
Out of the 30+ flights I took that summer, I was denied boarding only once. Those are some pretty good odds, especially since the summer is the busiest travel season and full of bad weather delays.
My mum and I wanted to fly to Los Angeles, so we picked the first flight of the day that had about 15 seats the morning of. With other higher priority employees on the list, there was only one seat left. My mom took the last seat while I hopped on standby for the next flight that left just an hour later, and we finally met up at the airport.
There are several other instances where seats may fill up last minute. For example, delays and cancellations can lead to rebooking on later flights during the day — so that flight with 30 seats available might be snatched up by revenue passengers. That’s why it’s important to monitor the flight loads religiously, check the forecast and see where the aircraft is coming from or going since numbers can change last minute.
Standby travel is also a game of exercising patience, as gate agents are often overworked when it comes to delays and cancellations. We were advised to never go up to the gate until boarding has finished, as you’ll want to stay out of the way as much as possible.
Several interns and I flew to St. Martin at the end of the summer. To ensure that we’d all get back to New York, some of us took the earlier flight home while the others took the later flight. No matter how many seats are available, it’s always stressful not to have a confirmed ticket, so splitting up helped us travel together without leaving one of us stranded.
Spontaneity is the spice of life
Thanks to JetBlue offering free in-flight Wi-Fi, I could then plan the rest of my trip once I got a confirmed seat and was en route to my destination. Depending on where I was going, I would only bring enough clothes for a day trip. I would look at last-minute hotels or Airbnbs on the flight.
On the ground, I would spend most of my time walking, spending time on the beach or exploring restaurants in the area. Standby travel is an entirely different way to travel than I’ve ever experienced.
As someone who’s quite spontaneous already, I loved the thrill of non-revenue travel and exploring a new destination for a fraction of the cost. However, as I returned to a “normal” paying passenger, I also enjoy the peace of mind that comes with a confirmed booking and the ability to earn points and miles and work toward elite status.
Featured photo by Stella Shon for The Points Guy.
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