Flying standby has changed over the years -- here's what it means and how you can do it

Sandy Huffaker / Getty ImagesIt’s important to be patient and respectful toward gate agents when flying standby.

  • Flying standby used to mean showing up at the airport without a ticket and trying to land a discounted seat on an undersold flight.
  • Now, you often need a ticket to be eligible to fly standby, but you may be able to catch an earlier flight, get an upgraded seat, or fly to a different airport in your destination city.
  • The rules and fees for doing so differ based on a number of factors.

Flying standby used to mean landing cheap, last-minute tickets.

In some cases, you could show up at the airport without a ticket and wait at the reservations desk and hope that an undersold flight came along. Now, due to heightened airport security and airlines’ increasing ability to fill flights, that’s nearly impossible unless you work at an airline or know someone who does.

But if you already have a ticket and want to try and catch an earlier flight, get an upgraded seat, or fly to a different airport in your destination city, standby could be the way to go. It’s not always an easy process, but if it works, you may be able to spend less time at the airport and more time at home.

Get to the airport early

Before you get to the airport, there are a few things you can do to get a sense of what your options might be. For some airlines, you can use their website or app to see which seats are available on flights other than yours. But the information you see online won’t always be completely accurate, so you can also call the airline’s reservations line to see if they can check for you. And in some cases, if you’ve bought an inexpensive ticket, you may not be eligible to fly standby on a different flight at all.

If your ticket does allow you to change flights the same day, it’s a good idea to show up at the airport early and talk to a ticketing agent for the airline you’re using. The agent will explain your options and either get you a confirmed ticket for another flight to your destination or put you on a list to potentially get a last-minute seat on a different flight.

Sometimes, passengers will receive standby seats on a first-come, first-served basis. Sometimes, passengers who are part of the airline’s loyalty program, have a lot of frequent flyer miles, or use the airline’s credit card will get preferential treatment.

Different airlines have different policies

The criteria that determine who gets to fly standby can be unclear, and it varies from airline to airline. That’s intentional, according to aviation analyst Henry Harteveldt.

“There is a lot of mystery that goes on behind the scenes,” he told Business Insider. “It’s not a completely transparent process, and that is by design.”

If there’s uncertainty about an airline’s method for choosing who gets to fly standby, it’s easier for it to make or change rules.

If you are able to get a standby seat, you’ll be charged a fee or the difference between your original ticket and the price of the new seat you’re taking in some cases. For some airlines, having a certain status in their loyalty program or an expensive ticket can waive those fees.

But if you don’t get a standby seat, there’s still hope. If there are any more flights to your destination before the one you’re ticketed for, you’ll often be put in line for those flights. Whatever happens, it’s important to be mindful of your behaviour.

Be patient and respectful of gate agents

“Be very, very patient,” Harteveldt said. “Remember that when you are standing by, you are not confirmed on a flight. Don’t hassle the agent. Don’t walk up every five minutes to ask where things stand.”

And don’t lie about having an urgent matter, like a death in the family, in the hopes of getting preferential treatment. In addition to being deceptive, your tall tales may be logged by the airline for future reference.

“If they see that you have requested to stand by for a dead grandmother before and you’re asking to stand by for that same dead grandmother, they may catch you in the act,” Harteveledt said. “So don’t try to pull one over on an airline. Just be honest about why you want to go home or leave early or whatever it may be.”

Below are links to the standby policies for the largest US airlines:





Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.