How To Fly The New Standby

If you are one of the millions of people this past holiday season that braved over-crowded airports and major flight delays to travel, at one point, you probably felt overcharged for menial leg room or food.

Perhaps these words tumbled from your mouth a time or two: “What the hell do you mean it’s twelve dollars for a snack box on-board this plane?!” Or: “I can’t believe it costs $150 to check this bag! Unless I’m getting a refund for my seat and riding inside of it, I’m not paying that!”

It’s a sad fact of life that in the last decade airlines have begun charging for what were once complimentary extras. Consumers are understandably outraged now that nothing (and we mean nothing) is included with their ticket. Spirit Airline, the notorious master-of-hidden-fees, even charges an additional $25 for window seats.

In the swelling public anger over the disappearance of free goodies, the deliberate phasing out of another long-standing airline carrier practice went unnoticed: standby flying.

Pre-9/11, it was possible to show up at the airport with nothing but a suitcase, a coffee, and a steely resolve to wait until a last-minute seat opened up on a plane flying somewhere you wanted to go. You didn’t need a ticket, you simply added your name to the “standby list.” With a little luck, patience, and flexibility, you could potentially save hundreds of dollars on airfare.

Today, no such option exists, but not for the reasons you might think.

“There aren’t many open seats anymore,” Seth Kaplan, managing partner of Airline Weekly, tells BTR. “And a lot of that is actually better information technology.”

Kaplan goes on to explain that, from an airline’s perspective, in a perfect world, airlines would auction off all the seats on a flight one by one, getting the highest price possible for each. But since that’s not possible, they use “revenue management science” to closely simulate the results of such an auction.

“The ‘unbundling’ of airline extras is something that airlines should have done a long time ago, but couldn’t due largely to their regulation history,” says Kaplan. “But the Recession really pushed them into it.”

It turns out that, though we love them, bundled freebies and cheap standby seats were never a business model U.S. airlines meant to adopt long-term–it was forced upon them as a result of the industry’s government-regulated beginnings.

When air travel first began in the U.S. it was not operating within the free-market that exists today. From 1938 to the mid-1970s, carriers were regulated by a distinct government agency called the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB). The CAB determined two significant factors for all carriers: what routes they were allowed to take and how much they could charge passengers.

With prices more or less streamlined, carriers competed for business by distinguishing themselves through service. Perhaps one carrier had better food, or gave away more in-flight wine (yes please!), or cultivated a reputation for the friendliest flight attendants. The problem with this model was that there was no way for low-cost carriers to enter the market, thus airline travel became a monopolistic concern.

Under the direction of economist Alfred Kahn, a regulation/deregulation expert known to history as the “Father of Airline Deregulation,” Congress passed the The Airline Deregulation Act in 1978, which (among other things) allowed carriers the freedom to set their own prices and routes. Therefore, low-cost carriers and cheaper fares became available and the CAB disbanded.

At this time of rapid growth and profit, airlines had no history of past sales to base their fares on since all fares had previously been regulated, nor did they have the economic tracking technology available today. There were also far fewer people traveling, and all of these factors made it difficult to fill every seat on a plane. Rather than fly an empty seat, which is viewed as a complete loss (called “spoilage”), airlines offered them to “standby passengers” last minute, at low fares.

As technology improved, airlines grew more adept at appropriately pricing their seats, thereby filling nearly every one. Add to that the high security measures that went into effect post-9/11, and flying standby became impossible.

Now, you can fly standby only if you already hold a ticket and miss your flight, want to upgrade your seat, or know someone in the industry who issues you a “buddy pass.”

Beth Henry, a flight attendant for a major U.S. carrier and author behind the blog “Cloud Surfing Kids,” explains to BTR that buddy pass-holders go through an airline employee they know to check flight loads and list you for the flight you want. Then, 24 hours ahead of time, they check you in as standby. Usually, only immediate family members are free, whereas most relatives and friends are subject to a fee that is sometimes close to a discount fare.

Henry, however, does not recommend it, and recently wrote about her own negative experience using a buddy pass for her kids on her blog.

“Flying on a buddy pass is a gamble,” she emphasizes, “They are passes for a seat should one be available. These days empty seats are few and far between.”

Using one requires clever planning and patience, and even then it might not be worth your while. What’s more, Henry says airlines today often overbook their flights to account for patterns of no-shows and last-minute cancellations.

So how can you save money on airfare?

“I have heard many people saying that major airlines are regularly releasing tickets last minute and very cheap to sites such as Kayak,” suggests Henry. “I actually have seen fares like $59 one way for LGA-DFW on the American Airlines website.”

Scott Keyes, a reporter for Thinkprogress and author of “How To Fly Free,” recommended, ITA Matrix, and Skiplagged to Business Insider and websites like Skyscanner and Expedia allow you to search for flights by price rather than location. So, if you are able to be flexible with your destination and dates it’s possible to find incredible deals.

Flying for free by careful use of points from credit cards has also gained popularity, though most travelers who are successful at this recommend extreme caution to avoid incurring, insurmountable debt.

With research, preparation, and a little bit of travel-smarts, you can still fly without breaking the bank, though you’ll have to resign yourself to less legroom and no checked bags.

For more ways to save on airfare tune into this week’s Twenty-Something Traveler!

Feature photo courtesy of Flickr user Christopher Doyle.