How Do Standby Airline Tickets Work?

To fly standby used to mean that you would show up at the airport and try to get a cheap, discounted ticket on an undersold flight. While the name still exists, it has morphed into something of an extra service that ticket-holders can invoke, given that certain conditions apply. This article takes a look at what the concept of flying standby means today.

Hong Kong airport allowing transit from June 1st
The concept of flying standby may have changed fundamentally, but it still involves a high degree of uncertainty. Photo: Getty Images

Change of concept

Once, trying to get your hands on a standby ticket could mean hours of waiting at the reservations desk. However, if you were not in a hurry and on a tight budget, it could still be an attractive option.

These days, due to heightened airport security and the fact that flights are more likely to be overbooked than undersold (present circumstances excluded), that is next to impossible.

Even so, if you do have a ticket for a flight and a number of different things occur, the so-called standby could still prove a boon in an otherwise possibly frustrating situation.

Standby these days are reserved for people who have been bumped off the flight they were initially booked on, those who would like to get on an earlier flight on the same day they were meant to travel or who wish to fly to a different airport at their destination.

It can also be applied to airline employees, their family members, or close acquaintances that fly for a heavily discounted price on so-called “buddy passes.” This instance is that which most closely resembles the original standby concept.

How do standby tickets work
Standby used to mean waiting for hours at the airport waiting to snag a discounted ticket. Photo: Getty Images

The frustrating bump

Bumping, also known as “denied boarding,” occurs when there are more travelers scheduled to fly than there are available seats. This happens as most airlines oversell flights to compensate for “no shows.”

Sometimes, however, the predicted no shows do not comply, and some people are forced to take a later flight. The airline may then either confirm a seat on a later flight right away or, and this is the more frustrating part, you could be put on standby for another flight that is fully booked. This could, in turn, mean a long wait at your departure airport.

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Understand the conditions

Should such a situation arise, do make sure that you are aware of what the compensation the airline is prepared to offer you for the inconvenience entails. If it provides a cash incentive, then make certain they will also offer free meals, as well as accommodation if the standby stretches overnight. Otherwise, all the money will be spent due to the waiting itself.

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Make sure to understand the conditions if you get bumped off a flight. Photo: Getty Images

Standby due to missed flight

This would be similar to the kind of standing by you may have to do in case you have missed the flight of your own accord. In this case, you may need to be prepared to wait patiently at the gate, hoping that the number of people not showing up exceeds expectations. But of course, if not making the flight was your own fault, you would not be offered any compensation.

In either case, it is essential to be polite to the gate agents. It is probably best to wait patiently for them to call you, rather than walk up to the counter asking for updates every five minutes. You must also pay attention to hear your name. If you miss it, your seat might go to the next person on the list.

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Standing by due to a missed flight could mean a long wait at departure gates. Photo: Jay Singh – Simple Flying

Same-day standby

Let’s say you are on a work trip, and your last meeting of the day gets canceled. Of course, you would like to get back home sooner rather than spending the rest of the day in a Starbucks. Or perhaps you accidentally show up earlier than needed at the airport due to time zone confusion. Either way, you would like to get on an earlier departure than your ticket dictates.

Ticket category matters

Technically, this is known as a “same-day flight change.” While different airlines have different policies, you almost certainly need to have a ticket category that permits same-day changes to begin with. Furthermore, you may need to pay for the difference in fare, and some airlines charge a same-day standby fee.

Some carriers will allow you to check seats for flights other than your own on their website. Even though this may not always be accurate, it is one way of gauging the possibility of getting on the flight you want. Some airlines, like United, even allow you to sign up for standby via their mobile apps.

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Same-day standby could potentially have you on an earlier flight out. Photo: Getty Images

Show up early or be a frequent flyer

If you cannot get confirmation online, it is a good idea to either call ahead or to show up at the airport as early as possible and talk to the ticketing agent of your airline. The agent can either supply you with a confirmed ticket for an earlier flight, or put you on a list for a potential last-minute spot.

Standbys are usually handed out on a first-come-first-served basis. However, often passengers who are frequent flyer members, or use the airline’s credit card may get bumped, in a much more favorable direction this time, to the front of the line. Some carriers may even forego the change fees if you inhabit a higher tier of the bonus program.

By all accounts, it also helps to travel with carry-on only, as some airlines do not allow standby with checked-in luggage.

Air Canada crew
If you have a family member or close friend working for an airline, you may be eligible for a “buddy pass.” Photo: Air Canada

Buddy passes

This is the closest you can get to flying standby the old-fashioned way. These tickets are not entirely free but heavily discounted. Sometimes, the only expense is for taxes and airport fees.

The passes work in the following way. The person who gives you the pass has to book the ticket “normally,” and any changes must be applied before check-in opens. Then you show up at the airport as if you had a confirmed seat, but you still have to wait until the last moment to know if you will be able to travel.

This kind of ticket pushes you to the back of the list of other standby potentials, such as full-price paying customers, off-duty pilots, etc. As you are a “non-rev,” meaning a passenger who does not provide any revenue for the airline, you could potentially be asked to switch seats, and you forego any compensation in case of delays or cancellations.

Did you use to fly standby in the good old just-show-up days? Do you miss it? Have you used the option recently? Let us know in the comments.