This was the week that flying standby was grounded forever

This was the week that the airlines finally put a stake through the palpitating heart of standby flying. Two things happened to make flexible plans something that will no longer reward the casual traveler.

It ended on February 10, the day of the big blizzard. The first thing that happened, of course, was that snowfall. Anyone who hadn't called the airline two days before, when they first heard about the incoming weather system, was in all likelihood staying put, and not just for the duration of the snowfall, but for days afterward. If your flight was canceled on Wednesday, you were likely to call the airline and be told that you weren't going anywhere on Thursday or Friday, either. For many flights, all standby bookings are slated to be off the table until the middle of next week.

It used to be that when the airlines canceled flights, there were enough empty seats on the ones afterward to absorb the overflow in a reasonable amount of time.

But no longer. When this recession began, the airlines changed that in a desperate strategy to stay airborne. Schedules were hacked, aircraft size reduced, and even under the sunniest skies, every flight is calculated to be as full as possible lest the empty seats cost the airlines more than they feel like bearing. Even under the best of circumstances, things are planned so there are few empty seats. So when the big weather disasters happen -- such as Wednesday's blizzard, which necessitated the cancellation of 5,700 flights -- it takes days to slot all those stranded passengers into free space on upcoming flights.

The second thing that happened on Wednesday, February 10, had nothing to do with weather, but with dark clouds of another sort. That was the day American Airlines announced that from now on, passengers must pay $50 to fly standby. That means if you have a ticket for a 5 p.m. flight and you want to see if you can get out on the 4 p.m. instead, you can't do it without forking over $50. It was another fee designed to suck money from our wallets, but sold to us by means of an up-with-workers sob story that would make a union leader blush.

Said American, processing standby requests "requires a huge amount of time, effort and distraction to the boarding process and gate agents trying to keep track of it."

American can justify this tax-free windfall any way it wishes (personally, I call processing standby requests part of the gate agent's job), but there's no guarantee that this new fee will reduce the gate agent workload by much, anyway, because only the passengers who are successful in nabbing a free seat will pay the fee. Everyone can still clog the gate agent desks and try for free.

I wouldn't ever attempt to fly standby anymore. The first people to get those rare empty seats will probably be dead-heading airline employees. That was the case on a Delta flight I took from New York City to Atlanta on Tuesday. The Northeast was buckling down for the snowstorm and there were zero seats to be found on any flights leaving New York City for the rest of the day. That had been the situation since Monday night, yet who was sitting next to me on one of the last flights outta Dodge? A uniformed American Airlines employee, who no doubt needed to be shuttled to her destination to make sure she met her next duty. Airlines help their own before they help customers, which is as it should be to keep the whole system from breaking down.

But if it hadn't been her, it was going to be an elite-status passenger who got that seat. The rest of us, the ones for whom standby was originally a crapshoot worth risking, for whom refusing to check a bag could yield unexpected additional rewards, were always bound to be left on the jetway.

Standby has always been a risky game. Now it's an expensive one, too.
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