Late in our married life, my wife and I became adrenaline junkies, getting our kicks flying standby.
Late in our married life, my wife and I became adrenaline junkies. No, we didn’t start riding motorcycles, skydiving or playing high stakes poker. For about a decade, we got our kicks flying standby, thanks to our eldest son’s job at a major airline. When he left the company, our risk-taking travel days ended along with our membership in a unique subculture.
Early in our time as non-revenue airline travelers, we were uneducated and unprepared for the thrills, chaos, agonizing anticipation and crushing disappointment that awaited us. At first, we didn’t know all standby flyers were not created equal. As parents, we were fairly low in status, compared with current and selected retired airline workers (e.g., ex-pilots). That stratification isn’t noticeable to the average traveler when scanning a list of standby names on a gate monitor. But experienced “non-revs” know the ranking. We soon learned to search out our fellow standby flyers. They were our competition for the two precious seats we hoped to occupy at takeoff. And they would determine whether we got on a flight or not.
A good friend once asked why we went through all the anxiety of flying standby—the waiting until all the paid passengers boarded before we heard our names called … or maybe not at all? Why did we endure the nerve-wracking search for available seats, the uncertainty of not knowing if we would catch a flight or have to wait all day and night in the terminal. After some early failures, we learned how to cope and adapt. For example, an experienced “standbyer” knows that sometimes you have to rent a car and drive several hours to another airport, only to repeat the same grueling process. Or the non-rev traveler will have to return home with full suitcases or check into an airport hotel and hope for better luck tomorrow. When airline trips can’t be postponed or rescheduled, you’re stuck paying a steep price for a last-minute full-fare ticket.
The thrills and rewards of flying standby arrive with the joy of Christmas morning when your name is called and you rush up to claim your magic boarding pass, knowing you are flying for free (except for minimal taxes). A free flight! When it all worked out, we celebrated. When it didn’t, we roamed many an airport feeling like unlucky, unloved second-class citizens, which technically we were. Such was the yin and yang of our lives back when we were adventurous non-revenue airline travelers.
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