What is a Standby Flight?

Guides · 5 min read · Apr 07, 2022
what is standby flight

Flying standby has a long history of changes over the years since commercial aviation became a reality. In the beginning, it was common to see people showing up at the airport ticket counter and getting a seat assignment for the next flight.

Of course, as demand increased, this was more difficult to achieve. Hence, the standby list came to life. Now, when people arrived at the airport without a ticket, they could get on that list waiting for the possibility of getting a seat on the next flight.

However, as we said, this has changed a lot. Nowadays airlines can fill their flights more easily, so flying standby is only common among airline employees and their relatives or friends using a buddy pass.

But what exactly is flying standby? How can you fly standby? How does flying standby work? If you are looking for the answer to these and similar questions, keep reading as we explain the details about flying standby.

Paper and electronic boarding passes for a flight an some Euros on a table.

What does it mean if you’re on standby for a flight?

As we mentioned above, in the past, when people arrived at the airport without a ticket and wanted to get a seat on any flight, they were put on the standby list. This meant they were on standby for a flight.

Now, the meaning of being on standby for a flight is that you have to wait for boarding to take place in order to know whether there are standby seats so you can fly standby.

Of course, just showing up at the airport is not enough anymore. At least most of the time. Flying standby can be very different depending on different factors, especially depending on the airline. And you can get on the standby list for different reasons too.

How do you get on standby for a flight?

Flying standby used to be highly beneficial in the past because it generally meant you would get to fly cheaper and on the same day. Yet, the most common reason to fly standby nowadays is because of a missed flight.

While you can still get standby tickets by patiently waiting at the reservations desk, this has become more difficult due to the heightened airport security and the fact that it is more common to see an oversold instead of an undersold flight.

Moreover, only ticket holders can access the fly standby service, and it usually comes with an extra price. Only Southwest standby passengers with their anytime fare, and those from a couple more airlines, get free same-day flight change.

In short, flying standby usually takes one of the following:

  • Denied boarding due to ticket overselling
  • Missed flight
  • Same-day standby offered by ticket category
  • Airline employees and buddy passes

The list above shows different ways you may get on standby for a flight. Obviously, some are more beneficial than others, especially those that may result in free standby travel or help you get on an earlier flight.

To better understand how flying standby work, let’s take a closer look at each possibility.

People walking down the airport terminal to their boarding gate, pulling and carrying baggage.

Fly standby due to denied boarding

This could be one of the worst things that can happen to any passenger. And it happens more often than anyone would like.

The fact is that airlines use data analysis to predict many aspects of their business so they can be more competitive and profitable. One of those aspects is the possibility of having empty seats due to passengers not showing up. So, they oversell some of their flights to compensate.

While data analysis is very powerful, it sometimes fails. When this happens, passengers are denied boarding even if they have a confirmed ticket. More often than not, they are bumped to the next flight, but if that flight is also full, they will be offered standby tickets which could mean a very long wait.

But not everything is terrible. Most airlines have compensation policies for these situations, especially for international flights. A standby ticket may entitle you to things like:

  • Cash compensation
  • Free meals in specific locations
  • Accommodation near the airport in case you cannot get a same-day standby flight.

Of course, things may be different when not getting on your confirmed flight is only your fault.

Fly standby for missed flight

Missing a flight is considered the passenger’s fault. Therefore, compensation policies like those described above may not apply. Of course, if you have proof that you missed the flight for reasons of force majeure some airlines will offer some kind of assistance.

In any case, what is for sure is that you will need to be very patient. Airlines will do their best to help you get on another flight when you miss your original flight, but this may take time. Also, keep in mind some airlines charge extra fees or a fare difference in these situations.

Getting an earlier flight on the same day

For many people, this may sound illogical. However, is more common than you think. With last-minute tickets hard to come by, business travelers that see their plans changed may need a same-day standby flight.

Fortunately, thanks to current technologies, these business travelers can try getting same-day changes even without having to bother the ticketing agent or gate agents. Some airlines offer standby during check-in via their mobile apps or at the airport kiosk. But, standby free is not common in these cases.

Moreover, priority to get the same-day flight change will be given according to the ticket class. Usually, standby free is offered to first-class or business class ticket holders. Depending on the airline’s standby policies, other fares may also get it for free.

Also, these classes, frequent flyers, and people using the airline’s credit card normally get priority, and they are called by gate agents to board first. However, for those flying in basic economy, most airlines charge extra fees to get them on a new flight. And they will do it on a first come first served basis, so if you are not there when you are called, they will call the next person on the list.

Airline employees with a buddy pass

Airline employees and their family members or friends usually benefit the most from flying standby. While their airline may not always give them free tickets, they usually get big discounts for standby tickets, even for international travel.

However, for a family member or friend, there are some things to keep in mind. First, the person providing the buddy pass is generally the one that must book the ticket, and if changes are needed, they must be done before checking in.

Then, the discounted ticket may have a different price to pay. Passengers with this kind of ticket are usually the last on the standby list since they are considered passengers that do not generate any revenue for the airline. For the same reason, the airline may require these passengers to change seats at the last minute, and no compensation is available in case of flight delay or cancellation. Yet, the cash savings is many times worth it.

A board at an airport displaying check-in information for passengers.

Final standby travel tips

We are grateful you have read this far, so we want to make sure you take these final tips with you the next time you are flying.

First, if you want to make sure you can get on an earlier or later flight, it is better to travel with a carry-on only. Also, when arriving at the airport, make sure you are calm so you can handle the situation properly. Remember that patience is key, as well as treating the ticketing agent politely to gain its goodwill to help you.

Finally, make sure you have understood the applicable policies. This will help you gain access to all the rights you are entitled to.

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Carlos Collantes
Carlos Collantes
A mechanical engineer and aviation enthusiast dedicated to share some knowledge by creating top-notch content, especially in engineering and aviation topics.

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