Existential adventures in standby
I’m the person who boards your flight last
Or, close to last. Not because I overslept or missed a connection from another airline or I couldn’t find the right gate. I’m what the airlines refer to as “non-rev” or “space available” or, in civilian parlance, a standby passenger.
It’s a perk of being the parent of an airline pilot. I can book my husband and myself on a flight going anywhere the airline flies, for next to nothing.
This is exactly as awesome as it sounds. Fly down to the high school reunion instead of drive? France for Bastille Day? Why not? There’s only one catch — well, one catch with branching subsets of catches: paying passengers take priority.
Makes sense, of course. Offering travel benefits to family members and significant others is a coveted benefit, one reason that airline jobs from luggage wranglers (“rampers” in industry lingo), ticket or gate agents, flight attendants, pilots, and all the administrative folks who handle bewildering logistics are eager to get and keep their very demanding jobs. But airlines have to keep the revenue flowing like any business.
This means I can book us on all the flights we want. It does not mean, once we’ve packed and boarded the dog and held the mail and headed to the airport, that we will in fact get on the plane.
It takes some time to get used to this. I strained my pilot son’s patience while I was learning the ropes. No, Mom, it doesn’t help to book ahead. It doesn’t matter when you got on the list. No, I can’t tell you for sure if you’ll get on or not.
There might be 15 seats available for your flight to Cabo, coming up on Friday morning. Sure thing, right? Unless, while you’re waiting at Houston (which you have reached through a previous standby flight from your modest regional airport), it turns out that a flight full of paying passengers from LAX was delayed due to mechanical issues, and 15 of them missed their earlier Houston connections to Cabo and so they’re all now on your flight.
Which is no longer your flight
You don’t find this out until the very last paying passenger has shown up, well past all the special needs passengers, the Premium, Platinum, Ultimately Faithful, and Seriously First Class folks have boarded, followed by Groups One, Two, Three, Four, and Five.
If you are smart and have any regard for your airline employee’s reputation with their employer, you do not pester the gate agent with questions. One of the first things you learn as a standby passenger is to be nice to the gate agent. Deferential. Obsequious, even.
Gate agents, to the standby passenger, are demigods. They don’t have ultimate power over your ability to board the plane — if a regional jet has 50 seats and 50 paying passengers, there’s nothing they can do to change that — but short of that, if they can help you and you’re not a jerk, they will do their best.
That is, if you don’t breathe down their neck while they’re doing their job, which involves more moving parts than most of us deal with in a month, let alone several times a day. They have to negotiate late-arriving connecting planes, late or missing crew, a constantly shifting roster of passengers, and the jerk standing at the counter whining about the upgrade they expect to get for free.
If you’re flying standby, you cannot be a whiner. Even when that gate agent, just before the door to the jetway closes, turns to you and tells you you’re not getting on.
That’s when you smile and thank them for trying.
Even if you don’t get the last flight home
Taking advantage of my parental flight benefits to visit my ailing sister who lives three states away as the crow flies, I found myself at the intersection of reinvigorated, post-Covid air travel and moderated flight schedules.
I live in Boise; my sister and her extended family live in San Luis Obispo, California. Both have nice regional airports, but neither is anywhere close to being a hub. My sister has a rare, progressive and incurable neurological disease. I try to head south to see her every other month if at all possible.
This trip south was a succession of lucky draws
I was fortunate to get on both the flight to San Francisco and the next one to San Luis Obispo. Lately, that has happened far more often than not. The problem with standby success like this is that it gives rise to complacency. A few trips without a hitch and I forget that I can’t count on such ease.
In this case, after a few days’ visit — always good but bittersweet — I began heading home. The flight to San Francisco was easy-breezy, with plenty of open seats and thus no suspense as to whether I was getting on or not.
Thirty-five minutes after takeoff, we landed at SFO. There was a flight to Boise leaving in about an hour. I headed to the gate and introduced myself to the gate agent. This isn’t strictly necessary, as everthing is automated, but I always do so. Automated systems necessarily contain pockets of gray area in which the human factor can make a big difference.
The gate agent said she thought I’d make it — but then several late-arriving passengers from a flight from Monterrey that had been delayed due to that region’s infamous summer fog showed up. So, no dice. The gate agent rolled me over, which is airline parlance for switching me to the next flight to Boise.
That flight left about four hours later. I texted home, took a few laps around the E, F, and G gates, wrote, read, bought a snack — the things one does in Airport World. Then I reported to the new flight’s gate agent, well before the flight boarded.
He was kind but dubious about my chances. And indeed, not only did all the ticketed passengers show up, but a couple of standbys with higher priority than me — not because they’d listed earlier but because status is based on employment seniority, so I must assume that couple’s kid has been working for the company longer than mine has — took the last available spots.
“I’m not allowed to jump seat, am I?” I asked the gate agent as the final passengers trailed down the jetway. I knew the answer but figured it couldn’t hurt to ask.
Jump-seating is only for crew: it refers to an empty seat either on the flight deck itself or one of those backward-facing seats the attendants sit in during take-off, landing, or turbulence.
“No, I’m sorry,” said the agent. Kindly, he looked for any other flights to Boise that night. There were none, neither on this airline nor any others.
“Any nearby cities you could go to?” he asked
This is the thing with Boise. For a mid-sized US city with a population of less than 230,000, Boise has amenities that few cities of its size offer: its own zoo, museums, symphony, dance companies, and theaters, all well-supported and easily accessible. It has a string of beautiful public parks along a public greenbelt that extends along the Boise River, allowing a cyclist to pedal nearly 30 miles in one direction without ever crossing a street.
A lot of that is because Boise is also the most remote city of its size in the continental U.S. Unless you live in Boise, you’re not likely to know this. It didn’t really occur to me until I’d lived here for over a year.
“Unfortunately, no,” I told the gate agent. “The closest I could fly to from here is Salt Lake City, and that’s a five-hour drive.”
“Oh,” he said. “Wow. I’m sorry.”
Suddenly I was in a Tom Hanks movie
Remember “The Terminal,” the 2004 movie in which an international traveler played by Hanks ends up mired in diplomatic limbo? He’s forced to figure out how to survive in an airport terminal for months. It’s based on a true life story.
I wasn’t stuck for months, and in fact I had options. I could go to a hotel. I could call friends that live on the Peninsula. My nephew and his family are in San Francisco. But it was already after 9PM: my friends and my nephew have busy lives with plenty on their plates. A nearby hotel would be costly and unappealing, and in all cases I’d have to schlep back and forth on rideshares to and from the airport, go through security all over again, and so forth.
It honestly seemed easier just to stick out the intervening hours in the airport, until the 9AM flight to Boise. It would be, as I assured my husband over the phone, a kind of adventure.
Here’s what I learned
Airport World has its own rythms and rules. It’s a land where time does not mean the same thing as it does in the rest of the world. For instance, there is no clear distinction between day and night.
There is a subtle dimming of the lights at some point when more of the retail shops and restaurants are closed than open, and of course the windows to the outside reveal a sky that gradually cycles through a palette of darkening and lightening hues. But at no time is it ever truly dark in Airport World.
Nor is it ever quiet. Announcements of flight delays or gate changes and appeals to late passengers to report for final boarding calls arise at intervals governed only by the arcane and ever-shifting schedule of flights. To the traveler on a long layover, these eventually become background noise. But the random security alerts are delivered at a volume sufficient to produce human levitation, especially among those who do not possess noise-cancelling earphones and who are trying to sleep.
In Airport World, you can eat or drink whatever, whenever. If you feel like having a cocktail at 9AM, nobody’s stopping you — in fact, you’ll have plenty of company. And airport food, especially in an international hub like SFO, has come a long way. You can find organic kale salads, fresh sushi, artisanal coffee, freshly-baked patisserie, and high-end wines.
But it will cost you
In my nineteen hour SFO stint, I figured I spent over $20 on coffee alone, and I only tanked up four times. Unless you resort to a diet of candy bars, there isn’t an Airport World salad or sandwich that won’t set you back nearly twice what it would cost on the outside. Trust me, it adds up.
Another truth of Airport World is that you are both always and never alone. If you’re traveling solo, you may have interactions with airline employees, airport staff, retail clerks, and even your fellow passengers. These can range from frustrating to pleasant to weird, but all of them are transitory. Essentially, it’s just you and your stuff — which, as the booming security alerts will remind you, you must never let go of, not even momentarily — amid a sea of other stuff-burdened wanderers.
Parallel to this is the fact that unless you possess a membership to a first class passenger lounge, there is nowhere to sleep in Airport World. But since there are always stranded passengers who are desperately in need of rest, the reverse is also true: you can sleep anywhere, as long as you can figure out how.
Whoever decided that the banks of seating at airport gates must have armrests — but no footrests — has either never been on a long layover or is a sadist. Perhaps it’s meant democratically, an effort to keep some passengers from hogging all the real esate, but unless you are very, very small or have the flexibility of a Cirque du Soleil contortionist, it is impossible to find a position in one of those seats that allows for more than three minutes of reduced conciousness.
For the stranded traveler, there are options. All of them require a suspension of any previously held standards for accommodation. If you can find one of those charging stations that include a worktable, you can both plug in your crucial technology and put your head down for a nap. Just make sure all of your charging cords as well as your luggage are in some way attached to you or have one or more of your body parts resting on them.
When that fails, as it ultimately will, you can drift out into the central terminal where you may find a more cushioned surface. At SFO, there are a number of padded, armless contraptions that are large enough for a human body to stretch out. If you can, again, somehow adhere to all of your possessions and get past the blaring lights, the glazed stares of passersby, and the fact that you must share the available space with strangers, you may be able to achieve something resembling sleep for up to an hour at a time.
You will find yourself having dark and envious thoughts about your fellow strandee who thought to pack a blanket. The concourse air conditioning is relentless.
Yet a night in Airport World has its charms
They depend, of course, on the airport in which you’ve fallen into existential escrow. If you’re lucky, your temporary reality will include fine art.
At SFO, there is an abundance of art, from rotating displays to large-scale murals and installations. People mostly walk past these works while scrolling through their phones or trying to figure out the location of their gates. You can’t blame these folks; their presence at the airport is in service to a goal of getting to someplace else.
But being stranded leaves you with the time and headspace to discover, register, and relish what you might otherwise regard with no more notice than you would wallpaper. Between the E and F gates, for example, there was a striking photographic exhibit featuring early woman aviators — aviatrix, as they were called at the time.
These doughty women were shown at the controls of their terrifyingly flimsy aircraft, contraptions made from little more than balsa wood and canvas, governed by Rube Goldberg-like mechanisms. The women were all sensibly but dashingly dressed in woolens or shearling, their feet and calves ensconced in tall leather boots. Their expressions ranged from fierce determination to grinning triumph, but what they all had in common was fearlessness. For a woman in the earliest years of the 20th Century, the obstacles to becoming a pilot were no doubt more fearsome than heading into the blue yonder in what was basically a motorized kite. Better women than I, without a doubt.
In the international terminal, there are huge paintings, mosaics, frescoes, and multi-media works that adorn the enormous stretches of wall that go from the gates level along the stairwells leading to the floors below. It was a luxury to be able to stop and study these. My favorite was this vivid fresco, adorned with life-sized, hand-carved wooden birds.
For people-watching, an airport is unsurpassed
Bereft of normal privacy yet armored with anonymity, you and your fellow itinerants are free to observe one another, as long as you don’t creep anybody out too much. The jaded, seasoned travelers march by the young families trailing strollers, toys, and distracted kids. Bewildered dogs trot by on their leashes or, if they’re small, peek their heads out of their specially designed carriers. Languages you think you recognize compete for airspace with those you don’t.
Airport World is a dizzying, dazzling, disorienting crossroads, potentially containing everyone and everything at one point or another. From the elite long-distance travelers to those just trying to get to work a little farther up or down the state, being a part of this transiting stream of humanity is, when you have time to consider it, a humbling and wondrous experience.
It’s also exhausting
As Wednesday gradually transitioned into Thursday, I stared blearily into my laptop, only to discover that the flights to Boise on my airline of choice were all just as full as they had been the previous day. It’s never entirely clear what this means: I have gotten a seat on flights that looked as though they were overbooked, simply due to changing conditions at the last minute.
But nineteen hours of Airport World, with perhaps three of those devoted to short intervals of sleep, had me beaten. There was one seat available on the 9AM flight to Boise on another airline.
I whipped out my credit card.
Now that I’m home and have had plenty of time to shower, eat real food and most of all get some decent sleep in my own bed, my night at the airport is an experience for which I’m grateful.
But it’s not one I’m anxious to repeat.