Some more on nonrev travel... Both of my parents have standby rights on American Airlines, which uses a rather complicated priority system for standby travel:

  • A: Priority classification, which comes in several levels. The highest levels are used for employees travelling on company business, such as deadheading flight crews or mechanics traveling to fix a stranded aircraft. Several priority classifications are also used for personal travel: A9 for travel in case of a family emergency, A11 for middle management. Unless you work for the airline yourself, you probably won't get one of these.
  • D: Each employee gets two "D1" tickets every year, as well as an unlimited number of "D2" tickets, which can be used for themselves, their dependents, their spouse (or domestic partner in the case of some *ahem* flight attendants), or their parents. D1 and D2 travel is free within the continental US for employees with five years of seniority, but carries a surcharge otherwise (typically about ten percent of the base fare, which usually works out to about a quarter of the typical internet fare). People outside the employee's immediate family can get "D3" tickets, which cost about 25 percent of the base fare.
  • ID: ID stands for "industry discount," and is available to anyone who works in the airline industry. Depending on which company you work for, you can receive either an "ID75" (75% off) or "ID90" (90% off) fare. Employees of companies within the same airline alliance have priority within their fare class. Recently, a bunch of airlines have created a single zone-based fare structure for interline travel, called ZED, although very few employees seem to understand how it works.
Employees and their immediate families can also fly "positive space," i.e., with a seat assignment, for 20% off.

(In law school, I eventually deduced that this pricing structure comes from the Internal Revenue Code. The airlines give their employees the best deal possible, short of what would have to be declared on their tax return as additional compensation rather than just a fringe benefit.)

Generally speaking, D3 and ID tickets are only cost-effective on international flights: for domestic flights, you're better off just booking a ticket with jetBlue or Southwest, since you get positive space for only slightly more money.

So here's how the seats get allocated for domestic flights:

  1. Prior to the date of travel, the passenger is listed in the airline's CRS system. This is called "meal listing" because it lets the airline know how many meals they should put on the plane. (Even though in-flight meals are rare as hell nowadays, the term is still used: the airline needs the listing for other reasons as well.)
  2. Four hours before departure, check-in for standby passengers opens. If there are enough unreserved seats to accommodate everyone on the standby list, they receive boarding passes as soon as they check in, at which point they can go to the gate and board along with everyone else. Some airlines even let standby passengers check in online nowadays, although they usually have to use hidden back-door sites to do so (it still beats the hell out of going to the airport at 3 AM for a 7 AM flight).
  3. If there aren't enough seats to accommodate everyone, the airline will seat the A passengers first, followed by D1, then D2, etc. If a standby passenger checks in but a seat is not open yet, they receive a "priority verification" pass which allows them to go through security to the gate (it looks just like a ticket).
  4. Just before boarding begins, the gate agent pages each passenger that hasn't checked in, in order to verify that they really aren't coming. If any seats are still open at that point, the agent pages the next few standby passengers on the list and gives them boarding passes.
  5. When general boarding is completed, the airline does a head count, pages any remaining stragglers, and allocates any remaining seats to additional standby passengers.
  6. Once the plane is full or all the passengers are seated, the door to the jetbridge is closed, the plane departs, and any remaining standby passengers are transferred to later flights.
If the airport requires passengers to clear passport control on their way to the gate, ignore everything from point 4 onward: check-in gets cut off about an hour before departure, and standby passengers are then given boarding passes for the remaining seats from the ticket counter.

If a standby passenger is connecting to another flight, they are given a "through" classification for the second flight, which gives them priority over other passengers in their class. Passengers who couldn't get on a previous flight also get priority, although their priority is below that of through passengers.

This process can be a genuine pain in the ass. Some stories I can relate:

  • Many years ago, I went to Ireland with my father. We were going to fly from Dublin to London, using an ID90 on Aer Lingus, and then connect to our flight home from there. Then, the first morning flight to London had a mechanical failure, so its passengers were all accommodated on other flights. Result: although we were ready to go at 7 AM, we ended up waiting in Dublin Airport all day as every single flight was booked solid and transferring its passengers to later flights. We finally got out on the last British Midland flight of the evening and had to spend a night with family near Heathrow.
  • A couple of years ago, I flew from Miami to Los Angeles and back on a D2. I checked in at LAX in the afternoon for a 5 o'clock flight, and after being rolled over from three flights, finally made it out on the last seat of the red eye at midnight. The last seat happened to be broken, and I knew that it would be placarded and taken out of service if I reported it, so I sat upright for the next five hours. (I still managed to sleep, though.)
Still, standby is worth it: I say this as someone who flew first class to Japan and back for about $200, enjoying free champagne, caviar, and DVD's all the way. It's hardly enough to make you want to work for an airline, but I digress...