Tales From A Pilot’s Wife
Pilot’s wife; pilot’s life. Or something like that. We travel a lot, and everyone always thinks that we both travel for free since my husband is a commercial airline pilot. “Oh, I see you went to Amsterdam in December and Indonesia in February. Must be so nice to pay nothing. I’d travel more if I had that opportunity.” Would you travel more, though, if you knew what airline standby entails? It’s also rarely free.
Let me preface by saying that we don’t risk flying standby for international flights since my husband does not work for an international airline. We always pay full price for those seats, especially since we don’t have the time to waste and we’d still have to pay a large chunk of the ticket in international fees. Plus, imagine having hotels and an itinerary booked and paid for but then missing two to four days because we got trapped in a layover. The cost of cancellation insurance would surpass our “cheap” airline standby listing.
Airline standby nationally as non-revs almost always costs us money, time, and a whole lot of sitting around in despair at the airport. Don’t get me wrong: I love being able to jump on a flight for much cheaper as a non-rev, and when a travel day goes smoothly (maybe 1 out of 6), I appreciate the benefits. When we get stuck, though, we are looking at missed days of work, rental car fees, airport food expenses, extra nights at hotels, additional transportation costs, extra house and animal sitting fees, buying an overpriced ticket last minute, and canceled reservations and plans.
Our Recent Adventures in Flying Standby:
This past week, we visited family in CT and had one of those airline standby experiences from heck. As always, the gate agents, crew, and pilots were wonderful. All we needed was one 2.5 hour flight home to FL but it took over 14 hours. That’s when I decided that I would set the world straight about our glamorous freeloading and divulge to the world the truth about flying as a pilot’s wife. You think being married to a pilot is all hopping on the plane Kardashian-style when really it’s like United dragging that poor man out of his seat because the crew needed it.
Here It Comes…
You Know You Are A Pilot’s Wife Traveling On Airline Standby When:
The most unknown part: You still pay 25%-50% for the cost of an airline seat to maybe get on…one day.
My husband is a pilot for an airline that typically does not fly to the locations that we travel to. In fact, I’ve only flown his airline twice so far in our 8 years together. Only one of those times landed us in our exact destination. When I fly his airline, I do go standby for free, and of course, he does too. However, when I fly other airlines, I use what is called a ZED fare, which means I basically pay a smaller fee per mileage. Standby lists me for the flight and if there is an open seat, I may be able to sit there. I usually get the verdict after the plane has completely boarded. Imagine me sitting there, chewing my nails down to the cuticle.
Since we are not employees of those other airlines, though, all of their standbys, including pilots, flight attendants, sometimes gate agents and other airport workers, and all of their friends and family on buddy passes get priority over us. Not to mention ticketed passengers switching flights or that had cancellations and delays. When a flight is already oversold and you see 20 standbys listed, some may not show, but you know you are toast.
You watch the jet bridge door close on your face over and over again like it’s Groundhog’s Day.
The gate agent shakes her head at us. The flight is full. We’ve missed another one. We know better than to leave the gate, though. Nothing is final until the jet bridge door closes, usually signifying that the final count is complete and there are truly no open seats. In slow motion, our hopeful faces fade as the jet bridge closes on us. We are on the wrong side.
Every other standby, including that 3-year-old with her mom, becomes your mortal enemy. You stare at each other for hours as you trail one another across the airport.
Sometimes a family of four is a blessing. They might be four people ahead of us on the standby list, but they usually won’t separate if there are not enough open seats. Say a plane only has 2 seats available: they turn them down and their loss becomes my lucky day. Honestly, I secretly pray on your misfortune. I am a nice person, I swear. Unfortunately, if we all fail to get on, we just keep following each other to the next set of flights, which could be hours later.
You always know your fellow standbys by the look of sheer exhaustion on their faces. We are the ones standing last minute on the sidelines, eyes laser-targeted on the gate agent with secret prayers that she may pick us next to board. Standbys are only in a camaraderie if we all get on or if our next options are completely different. Until then, little kid, it’s you or me.
Because of said standbys, you whisper your next flight moves and gesture in code.
We always go to the airport with at least 5 different options to get to our destination. As one flight starts to look bad, we run to a phone charging station and hit up all of the travel booking sites. Not every standby is as seasoned or desperate as us, and like the Amazing Race, we do not want to share our secrets and potential methods of success. My husband and I have created an airport code, which resembles a lot of sighing, anxious twitching, and trying to lose fellow standbys. We probably look like airport rampers with our airport sign language. Never give away your next options. Every group for themselves; can I get an ‘Amen.’
You actually get on a Fort Lauderdale flight landing 3-hrs away from your target destination only to have it return to the gate for maintenance. You make a split second decision to grab your luggage and sprint across the airport Olympian-style to catch a non-broken plane.
I kid you not. A flight into a destination 3.5 hours from us had a delay for weather and became an amazing flight option for us. The boarding door started to close, again, without us on it. Then, a miracle happened: The gate agent cried, “Wait,” as a woman with a family emergency got off the plane. (I sat next to her friend; everything ended up being OK. Don’t worry. I am not heartless.) My golden seat opened, and we ran on board. The plane headed out as I naively texted everyone with my euphoric luck. “I’m on! I’m on! We are going on a mini-vacay to Fort Lauderdale! Surprise!”
Our good luck ended there. Something miraculously bad happened: the pilot turned the plane around for maintenance. We returned to the gate. Since passengers were already missing their connections, they let anyone off whose travel plans were now altered. We made a quick decision to deplane and try for a different flight that was currently boarding to our actual final destination. We became those people you see barreling down the airport aisles exhausted and stressed.
P.S. We made a good decision. That Lauderdale flight eventually took off hours later only to divert to a different state and landed at its destination over 15 hours later.
Your rental car was already booked in Fort Lauderdale as you were fantasizing about breweries and the beach.
I am a glass half full kinda Uncorked Librarian. We can’t get home to Orlando? We have to take this open flight to Lauderdale and rent a car during rush hour? Heck, lets make it a party and extend the vacation. Sure, it costs more than actually buying the damn plane ticket in the first place, but we can add it to our travel plans for the year. Beach and brews, here I come, baby!
Until the plane breaks and we have to get off…and then have to cancel the rental car reservation as well as a gazillion other flight listings.
Stopping to pee during said sprint risks your odds of getting home.
I think this one is self-explanatory. Sacrifices, baby, sacrifices.
Your husband’s airline doesn’t fly into this airport so you are somehow number 40 on a standby list of only 20. Any city within 5-7 hours of driving distance from home becomes a viable option. Flying to Puerto Rico just to catch said airline becomes an option.
The direct flights to our exact location are no longer options. The two- to three-leg ‘options’ are not worth the risk. But hey, we can catch this flight to PR, and then hop on my husband’s airline tomorrow. Totally realistic. Like unicorns flying us there. But still, an option.
Your amazing cat sitter is as equally tired of your standby flying shenanigans. Maybe I’ll be home in two days? Four days? One hour? Can you just keep my cats, like, forever?
We do have a house and animals that require care. Imagine telling someone that we’d love it if they could stay an extra day or ten. We have lives, but you probably don’t, right?
Standby affects not just you but also your loved ones.
You devour an entire package of gluten-free, lactose-free cookies from your mom because that’s brunch, lunch, and dinner and all you have in sight.
I am always hungry. Always. I usually pack snacks, but because we try not to check luggage for a flight that we might not get on, I do not have room for pretzels. Nor do I have 5 minutes to get in line for an apple when I am literally running across the airport for hours on end. DOES ANYONE HAVE ANYTHING I CAN EAT? Please?! That’s when you remember your husband has cookies in his bag.
Well, he had cookies…
You fantasize about transforming that bottle of wine you have in your husband’s carryon into a water bottle.
You know what else he has? A bottle of WINE that you had to bring back from CT.
You kiss everyone’s ass and smile when you want to scream-cry because you just want on that damn plane. Want my kidney? Let me just get that for you.
Holy sugars: I watched a ticketed passenger curse out the gate because she missed her flight. I’m pretty sure that gate agent didn’t make you late, but hey, who am I to judge. I will tell you this: you never know if a gate is 100% closed until that door shuts and the plane starts moving. Be nice; your smile may get you on when all hope seems lost. Going all Jerry Springer on the gate agent probably guarantees that she won’t be doing you any favors. We’ve given them chocolates, handed over our extra pens, and always make jokes. You will remember us. We will love us. And please god, you will let us on that plane.
You sing “Another one bites the dust” as your flight options dwindle after countless hours at the airport.
I’ve been up since 4:30 AM. I am tired and hungry and delirious and grumpy and getting a little tapped out/stressed. My mind is like a MTV music video, and I am the star.
You are already eyeing that $320-$500 one-way ticket tomorrow as the gate agent says “oversold” and gives you the pity look (but really the tough luck non-rev sucker look).
Does anyone really like non-revs? I doubt it. I’m like Uncle Eddie in the National Lampoon’s Vacation series. The world dictates I buy a ticket. Since I tried to cheat, I pay triple. Jokes on me.
After 14 hours of going straight for a mere 2.5 hour flight with a 4:30 AM wakeup, you make it home and think: hey, that wasn’t so bad. I’m in Orlando. How the hell did this happen?! Where to next?!
I found a seat on an oversold flight? People, how do you check in and not show up to the gate on time? Seriously, do it more often. Cuz I am going home today!!!
Lastly, you commiserate with all fellow standbys; we are a tribe
Our FL friends fly on buddy passes since their daughter works in the industry. They had an equally long travel day once and created a Blues song in their free time:
My daughter is a stewardess,
we get to fly for free.
But she’s so new
Free seats are few.
And so this is our plea,
“Please let us on, we need some seats! kioooy
To Vegas we must git.”
“No, not today!”
The agents say,
“now take your ass and sit!”
We got the stand-by blues,
We want to fly and cruise,
Not sit at the gates and snooze,
Got the stand-by blues.
We do not care for games of chance,
We want to see the sites:
The giant groover,
A dam called Hoover.
But no! This stand-by bites!
We had our breakfast and our lunch.
We sit, we stretch, we stand.
Food costs so much
we split our lunch.
And watched flights go and land.
We got the stand-by blues,
We want to fly and cruise,
Not sit at the gates and snooze,
We got the stand-by blues.
By Wayne & Diane Keyes
I’d love to hear your standby experiences in the comments.