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The Highs and Lows of Standby Travel

Photo provided by Devin Durant

Working for an airline has many perks. Not only do you get to work in an airport, working with airplanes everyday, airline employees are also given discounted, almost free travel on many airlines. However, this discounted travel comes at a price: The Standby List.

If you ever have been sitting in a departure lounge at an airport and hear the gate agent call people up to the gate’s counter to receive seating assignments. These people were more than likely on that particular flight’s standby list and were cleared to go on the flight. For every flight there is a standby list, or a priority list. This is a list of passengers who are trying to travel on a flight but are not guaranteed seats. Some people on this list are revenue passengers who are simply trying to get on an earlier flight than the one they booked on. However a majority of people on the standby list are airline employees trying to hitch a ride.
When an airline employee uses their flight benefits to catch a flight somewhere, their seat on that flight is not guaranteed. They travel what is called space available, meaning that they will only get on the flight if there are seats available. Normally these are seats that haven’t been sold by the airline, but the seats can be people who didn’t check-in or failed to show up for boarding.

For those on a standby list, the time between check-in and when the boarding door closes can either be a relaxed experience or a time of high anxiety.

On a standby list there’s different levels of priority for the people on the list. At the very top of the list are revenue passengers for the airline. These are people who are trying to catch an earlier flight than the one they are booked on or were on a previously cancelled flight. Next are employees of the airline travelling on airline business. Then is employees of the airline that are traveling for personal business. Then at the bottom of the list are employees of other airlines traveling for personal business. Because of their low status, it can sometimes be stressful for them.

In my own personal experience there have been times when I was cleared for a flight before I had even gone through the TSA checkpoint. On the most recent flight I flew standby on, there were only 50 passengers booked on an airplane with 190 seats. Therefore myself and my travel companion were cleared immediately for the flight. However there have been times when this is not the case. On a recent trip to New York, my travel companion and I were number 16 and 17 on the standby list. Online there were only five open seats available. We did not believe we would get on but in the hope of the slimmest of chances we stayed at the gate and waited. The gate agents boarded all the passengers at the gate then cleared the passengers who were higher up on the standby list. We still waited. They were paging for about five missing passengers. We waited as the boarding door closed, and the gate agents offloaded the missing passengers. Then, about 10 minutes to departure time, the gate agent cleared us for the flight. Although me and my travel companion were not sitting together, we were grateful to get on.

The perks of airline employee are great and the flying benefits are fantastic. However there is never such a thing as a free lunch, it always has a cost. For airline employees that cost is potentially not getting on the flight, disrupting a well planned holiday. However, with patience, traveling standby as an airline employee is a great way to see the world.

Daniel Morley


  • Daniel Morley

    Daniel has always had aviation in his life; from moving to the United States when he was two, to family vacations across the U.S., and back to his native England. He currently resides in South Florida and attends Nova Southeastern University, studying Human Factors in Aviation. Daniel has his Commercial Certificate for both land and sea, and hopes to one day join the major airlines.

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