On July 21, 2011, I was forced to traverse into undesirable territory. The minute the clock stroke twelve, I was immediately reduced to Delta’s odious label of The Nondependent Child. Having successfully completed my 23rd year of life, I was compulsorily demoted from the limitless S3 priority to the restrictive and expensive (compared to $0) S3b priority. Merely a single letter variation, but, as other nonrevenue passengers know, a world of difference.
Appropriately, Delta’s abrupt degradation coincided with the start of my adulthood, ushering me through my lazy senior year of college into a spouse and a salary. I rarely fly anymore, what with an 8-to-4 job and a budget. On the occasion that I do use my benefits, there is more at stake when I can’t get on an overbooked flight because I don’t have as much free time anymore. When my husband and I take a trip, we usually purchase tickets so we can travel together and have the luxury of confirmed seats.
But sometimes I still fly standby.
In my husband’s opinion, a couple hundred dollars for a transatlantic flight in business elite is not always worth the uncertainty, anxiety, risk, and frustration of a discounted but unreserved seat (especially for a brief stay, when not making a flight significantly interrupts other travel plans), and $60 from Ft. Lauderdale to New York is certainly too high a price to pay for the grievance. He has wisely taught me the value of things that cannot be bought with money so you might as well pay some money for them, such as security and serenity. While I admit I probably romanticize my past travel adventures, I do recognize the disadvantages of standby travel:
The Stress of Almost Making It, or, You Might Never Make It
In the end, it is irrelevant if you are 1st or 32nd on a standby list. You are either on the plane, seatbelt fastened and tray table in its upright and locked position, or you are abandoned in the gate area, staring pathetically at the closed door to the jet bridge.
Sometimes you make the next flight or take a backup route through a series of layovers, but sometimes you never make it at all. There have been several times I have almost made it to Australia, Brazil, and Greece. I feel bad because I had friends waiting for me in all those places, and I still have not shown up.
The Stress of What to Eat, or, It Could Be Your Last Meal
Back in the days of Northwest Airlines (pre-2008 Delta merge), I was the proud owner of a consistently restocked supply of $10 food vouchers. These coupons were essentially free money and could be used at any airport restaurant. When Delta took over, I actually had to pay for my food. When I needed to refuel after hours of airport loitering, my go-to snack purchase was usually a large bag of Cheez-its.
One of the things that cannot be bought with money but if you just spend a little extra money you can have it is the happy feeling you have when you are not hungry but you also did not stuff yourself to the brink of explosion with little crunchy baked squares of salty cheesy goodness. I have learned that sometimes it is worth it to pay for a substantial, albeit overpriced dinner item.
The Stress of Where to Sleep, or, Why Don’t I Have Any Friends Who Live in Atlanta
The lure of airport camping has lost its seduction, the whole stick-your-passport-in-your-pants and hope-you-don’t-have-to-get-off-the-floor-for-someone-to-vacuum-here ordeal. I used to walk through many an airport terminal, searching for seats that didn’t have that aggravating immovable armrest between them, but to no avail. Only once have I actually opted to stay in a hotel overnight, and that was because I could get the employee discount in Detroit.
Last weekend, I flew standby to my sister’s graduation and got the very last seats on all my flights. On Sunday, stuck in Atlanta, I reflected on the tense past few days I had spent with my divorced parents — the first time I had seen them together in public in my life — and how I acted as the middleman between them once again. I thought of returning to work the next day and the challenge and chaos that would ensue with the at-risk girls I teach.
“I hate flying standby,” my husband said, after I missed a connection home and I called to update him on the lack of prospects for the next flight. I paused for a moment as I considered the possible sentiment of ever hating flying standby as well, and instantly rejected the idea.
It’s stressful, yes, but it is my favorite kind of stress.