It is a strange sense of imagined community to linger anxiously at the gate desk with other standby passengers, crumpled seat request in hand, praying desperately that it will be replaced with a shiny boarding pass — the most coveted of white paper slips. We represent diverse ages and backgrounds, and come with carry-on luggage of various shapes, sizes, and colors.
We stand isolated for a while, absorbed in our own itineraries, and then gradually strike up conversations. We compare positions on the standby list, boast of how many hours we have been waiting at the airport that day, nodding empathetically at the misfortune of The Overbooked Flight, and share our connection to Delta’s nonrevenue world, pleasantly joking with each other, “You should tell your son/sister/aunt to get a better priority!”
Our eyes are glued to the TV monitors, giddy with excitement when the number of unclaimed or unreserved seats increases (“Did you see that? Now there are THREE OPEN SEATS!”) Our faces display our disappointment as the gate area grows crowded and passengers obediently line up to board. As each new person moves swiftly down the jetway, we exchange crestfallen expressions and make the occasional phone call to a loved one at our destination, “I don’t think I’m going to make it…”
Our hearts beat faster as soon as the gate agent announces the final boarding call over the loudspeaker, a glimmer of hope when it is publicly warned that all passengers who have not yet boarded will have their reservations cancelled. We glance around nervously, emitting a collective groan when a tardy revenue passenger comes rushing into the gate area, spewing the same old alibis we have heard so many times before, excuses of “Security was backed up!” or “I thought it was Gate A12!”
With only two seats left, we lament, “There is just no way we will get on.” And then the gate agent calls for MAC/T, with no answer. We all move up one space on the standby list. “Until the door is shut, there is always a chance,” we comfort each other, only half-believing our whispered condolences. The next person on standby gets a seat and we all cheer, secretly and obviously wishing we could take their place.
And then — but oh, it was impossible! — the gate agent calls my last name. My hand shoots up in the air in case she can’t see me standing right in front of her as I exclaim, “Yes, Brown! Here! That’s me!” and it all happens so fast. Looking back at my old teammates with an optimistic farewell salute, I hand over what has transformed into my winning lottery ticket and wait for my boarding pass to print out from the scanner. The gate agent promptly gives me my scrap of precious paper and I look down in admiration at that glorious combination of numbers and a capital letter that will be my little home for the next couple of hours.
I hurry down the jet bridge as the gate door locks shut behind me with a final click. That’s it. No more passengers. The flight attendant greets me with an obligatory smile, and I openly receive it and feel genuinely cared for. As I walk down the aisle, some passengers glare at me with the plausible assumption that I am the irresponsible latecomer who is the sole cause of their delayed departure. But no! I was at the airport hours and hours before any of you!
I find my assigned row in the back of the plane. A tiny, uncomfortable middle seat between two very large humans never looked so inviting. I hastily brush the crumbs off my seat from its previous occupant and shove my backpack under the seat in front of me. I fold my hands sedately over my fastened seatbelt and take a deep breath of relief. The plane has yet to take off, but I am floating on clouds with an adrenaline high and feel on top of the world. I am the adventurous standby risk-taker, the victorious traveler, the flying conquistador.
I am the nondependent child who still has her wings.