Life as a standby passenger

I woke up at one in the morning to a lengthy text message, informing me that my flights getting home had changed drastically over the last 12 hours and my planned itinerary from Austin to Las Vegas this afternoon was no longer an option– I would be stranded in Houston, my connecting city, if I even managed to get there. My heart sank, but only a little, only before I reflexively started cataloguing all the other connecting cities for Austin, and five minutes later, I was on my computer with multiple tabs open, comparing alternative flights and dates and destinations as I sorted out my last-minute re-booking. All standard procedure.

Last-minute flight bookings, standard procedure? It sounds luxurious, as though I have the disposable income (or inane, as though I have the financial irresponsibility) to fritter away funds on plane tickets that have been jacked up in price for those who don’t plan their travel at least two weeks in advance. But no; as the post title ought to have given away, I’m just a standby passenger.

The text I awoke to was not sent by the airline, but by my mother, who began her career as a flight attendant decades before I was born. One of the biggest factors in where you rank on the standby list is employee seniority, and for most of my life, I was almost always one of the first standbys called and given a seat assignment, which meant I didn’t need to look for flights with significant space available. But then she retired, and then I turned 25 and was downgraded from “dependent” to “companion”, and my seniority status when traveling unaccompanied dropped a fair amount. But it wasn’t so bad that I could never get a seat, and ranking notwithstanding– her flight benefits are too enticing for me to ignore. Or benefit, rather, since there’s only one that I know of and use: as a declared pass rider on her company file, I don’t pay to fly out of any U.S. city.

People often react to my traveling lifestyle with wistful envy, in that 1) I travel as widely and as often as I do, and 2) I fly for free. Except, it’s not free, not really, because while it’s true that I don’t pay anything in dollars, I pay– sometimes inordinate amounts– in convenience and certainty.

As a standby passenger, I’m a captive to flight load stats: how many seats have yet to be sold, how many other people are standing by for the flight, and where I fall in that queue. Fridays and Sundays are almost always impossible, since that’s when the bulk of the general population flies, and holiday weekends or holiday seasons (e.g., late November to mid-January) are just bad ideas, especially when the destination is a vacation hotspot (such as Vegas, my hometown). And even on “good travel days”, I’m usually relegated to taking the first flight out, which means being awake, packed, and ready to leave for the airport by 4 a.m.

What’s more, the numbers never stay the same. Flight loads are as, if not more, volatile as stock prices, so beyond the loads, I have to take into account external factors– namely, the weather. When cold storms like those of late cause airports to be shut down and flights to be delayed or flat-out cancelled, incidents like this morning occur. Houston is a major hub and has yet to be hit by ice or snow, so full-fare passengers get re-routed through IAH, and what was an open flight with 30 seats at 2 p.m. yesterday is now oversold by three. Or as another example, the flight I’ve listed for out of San Francisco Sunday morning currently has 57 seats available, but all the flights from SFO to LAS for Saturday are oversold and have substantial standbys listed, which more than likely means the ongoing rollover will prevent me from getting home until Monday evening.

Making plans with friends in destination cities always have to be arranged on the fly; more often than not, nobody knows I’m in town until after my plane lands, because I’m not even sure that I’ll actually be there until I’m on the plane and we’ve pushed back from the jet bridge (it’s not impossible for a standby to be pulled off the plane should a full-fare suddenly show up and successfully demand their paid-for seat, regardless of gate closure policy). Lodging and transportation, if necessary, are investigated and reserved on the way to passenger arrivals for the same reason.

There are some days, many days, where I am at the airport from well-before-dawn to well-after-dusk, standing by for every and any flight that could get me out and hopefully closer to where I’m trying to go (or ideally, there, period), tirelessly moving from gate to gate. Even if the loads aren’t promising, even if I’m #20 on the standby list for a flight that has 10 open seats, I will often try anyway, because after weather, the next biggest external factor is the phenomenon of human behavior known as “People Don’t Show Up For Their Flight”. They oversleep, they get stuck in traffic, they miss a connection somewhere, they change their plans; I can’t count on the phenomenon happening, but I can count on the possibility of it happening. And so I wait, because I never know.

And that’s the thing. I never know. If there’s anything that being a standby passenger has reinforced in me, it’s the understanding that nothing is absolute, nothing is certain in life. Even Nate Silver isn’t right 100% of the time. Excuse the cliché essay genre of “Lessons Learned From Doing X”, but flying standby has been the ultimate teacher in rolling with the punches– I honestly couldn’t do this without a laissez-faire/que sera, sera attitude, or the stress of it all would surely have killed me years ago.

I’ve learned patience like no other. I’ve learned to disavow expectations and accept the reality of a situation as it iterates and redefines itself moment by moment. I’ve learned to always have books and backup plans on hand. I’ve learned that there are countless formulas for getting from Point A to Point B (I am forever scrutinizing the airline’s “cities we service” route maps) and I’ve learned how to travel, even for multi-week trips, with only a carry-on and a personal item and a quart-sized clear plastic bag of liquid toiletries because checked luggage is no friend to those desperately changing their itinerary (often enough while waiting at a gate) every half-hour.

But most importantly, I’ve learned endless gratitude. I’m grateful that I even get the opportunity to ride the roller coaster of chance that is standby travel. I’m grateful my mother decided to become a flight attendant as long ago as she did, and that she chose a global airline that flies to more cities than I will realistically ever visit. I’m grateful that my size means I fit reasonably into even a middle seat in the last row of coach and that my insomniac tendencies make spending the night in an airport no big deal at all. I’m grateful to have a natural proclivity to picking up languages and a disposition that has yet to induce hostility or disdain from locals, despite my fumbling attempts at communication.

I’m grateful to Airbnb hosts who approve my last-minute reservation requests– to friends around the world who are affably game to my spontaneous inquiries regarding hanging out and who generously let me stay with them when I’m unable to get home– to friends and family in Vegas who forgive my sporadic and perpetual absences– to my cat who still adores me despite my relocating her to my parents’ house unless I’m home for at least one solid week. And I’m grateful, so grateful, that I work for a company that is predominantly remote, on a team that doesn’t mind when I’m working from the other side of the world so long as I’m getting things done. I’m also pretty grateful that even tiny foreign countryside villages have amenities like high-speed wireless Internet these days.

It’s not worth the hassle for everyone, this standby game, but I’ve been playing it for so long now that setbacks are treated as opportunities for a new adventure, and when my intended flight schedules do work out? Oh, it’s a marvelous experience. I’ve flown to Québec City to have dinner and to Thailand to drop off cookbooks. In a week-and-a-half’s time earlier this year, I found myself in Ohio, NYC, Montréal, Belize City and Texas, all on a whim. I sometimes look at flight loads to Barcelona, Geneva, Buenos Aires, Delhi, London, Stuttgart, Tel Aviv, just to see where I could possibly go, could possibly be, could possibly explore (or revisit) and wander and roam, not in search of anything particular but just madly in love with this planet and its people. Because I could. I could fly to any of those places, I could be anywhere in America– I just need one seat. One space available. And even though I do pay for flights departing from international cities, I only have to cover the cost of airport taxes, and my standby privileges include access to any open seat in any cabin.

Last February? I flew to Switzerland and back in a nearly-empty first-class cabin both ways for a grand total of $35.

A marvelous, marvelous experience.

It won’t last forever, I know. Eventually, I’ll want to settle down, put down roots, be more geographically dependable, hang out with my cat in my house for more than a few weeks out of the year. I’ve wanted to start and cultivate a garden for ages. And as airline policies wax and wane, so do my flight benefits, and it’s entirely possible that soon enough, those benefits will be rendered practically useless.

So if there’s a final lesson that flying standby has instilled in me, it’s this: to take advantage of an opportunity while it’s available. If a flight has seats, get on it; if the airline flies to that city, go there. Likewise, if a desired opportunity isn’t available? Other opportunities are, and they are sure to be desirable in their own unique ways. It may seem repugnantly passive, to let my life be dictated by the outcomes of dice I’m not rolling, but it’s something I’ve actively chosen to live by. Navigating this rolling discord is a choice. I’ve learned to make chaos a serendipitous ally instead of a ruinous enemy, and I am thus rewarded with sights and experiences I never knew I’d ever wanted, with unexpected pockets of extraordinary delight.

Life, as you know, as you’ve heard time and time again– life is a journey, an endless series of flights. One day I’ll opt for the greater security and surety of destination that come with flying full-fare, but for now, while I still can– while I still have the emotional fortitude necessary for surviving being stranded and rerouted and delayed– while my heart is still light and unmoored, still open as a flower turned to the sun– oh, for now, I’ll keep flying standby, and joyously so.


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