Standby versus confirmed

This item appears on page 14 of the May 2010 issue.

I work for an airline and might be able to offer an insider’s perspective on the whole “standby vs. confirmed” debate (March ’10, pg. 72).

Our airline, too, allows same-day standby for free but charges for changes on confirmed-flight tickets.

Passengers always ask what their chances on standby are and we put forth our best guesses, which is the most we can do. Airline agents don’t make a commission from change-fee revenue, so we have no interest in deceiving you, but, in the end, it’s still just a guess.

Almost every flight has some no-shows, so a flight that might look full to a ticket counter agent can end up leaving the gate with empty seats if a couple people don’t check in or arrive at the gate on time.

Even more bizarre (from the customer’s point of view, anyway) — an allegedly full flight can leave nearly empty if a large group ends up missing a connecting flight en route. Ticket counter agents seldom have connection info available at their fingertips and would have no way of knowing that a bunch of seats will be opening up at the last moment.

The flip side is also true: more than once I have advised a late passenger that his standby chances were good, only to check the computer a little while later and see that all of the seats have been filled by other paying passengers. This happens most frequently when a competing airline has to cancel one of its flights due to a mechanical or weather reason and snaps up all of the available seats that we had to that destination for the rest of the day.

In short, standby is just that: standby. Whether the agent at the counter thinks you have a good chance or not is not very reliable, as your “chances” change with each passing moment.

Agents also hate being put in the position of advising you one way or another, knowing full well (as the above-referenced letter only proves too well) that they’ll be blamed or accused of being dishonest if the plane in question leaves with empty seats.

The lesson here is simple: if you want to skip the expense of confirming a new seat to try to save yourself some money, then you and you alone are responsible for taking the risk of traveling standby and being stranded somewhere you wish you weren’t if things don’t work out the way you want them to.

Especially if you are not flexible in your schedule, paying extra is worth the peace of mind knowing that an airline is holding a new seat for you, whether you end up seeing empty seats on board later or not. It makes no sense to agonize that you might have gotten on as a standby passenger, as this is the air equivalent of “Monday morning quarterbacking”; it does nothing to make anyone feel any better after the fact.


Honolulu, HI