Aeronautical Randomness
Screwing fellow employees
October 25, 2012

I suspected from the beginning that I would not be boarding the flight.  It was oversold and one of that airline’s pilots had already checked-in for the cockpit jump seat.  In addition, several of the carrier’s employees were hanging around in the gate area.  With the jump seat taken, I was forced to stand around and hope to be the lowest priority winner of the non-rev game.  Although the chances were slim, rule #1 of non-revving is to never leave the gate until the aircraft pushes.

The first glimmer of hope came about thirty minutes before departure.  One of the three agents made an announcement stating no volunteers were needed to give up their seats.  If the passenger volunteered to be bumped due to the oversold situation, he or she could board.  That indicated they at least had seats for everyone who bought a ticket.

About fifteen minutes before departure, I moved closer to the podium so I wouldn’t miss any announcements.  I struck up a conversation with one of the six other standby passengers.  I was also listening to the confusion starting to brew at the gate.

“Are we really missing THAT many people?” the agent taking the boarding passes asked the agent at the podium.

“I guess so.  Let me run down and check.” He left the podium and disappeared down the jet bridge.  Both my new friend and I agreed that was a really good sign.

A few minutes later, the agent emerged and had a conversation with the boarding agent.  She immediately picked up the microphone and paged seven passengers.

He returned to the podium and gave some information to another agent.  She started cross-referencing the computer to match names with seats that the agent discovered empty.  In the next few minutes, a bit of chaos ensued while the agents tried to figure out why they had so many open seats.  Phone calls were placed and several trips were made back and forth to the jet.  While this was happening, the boarding agent repeatedly paged the same seven names.  I was really liking the chances of everyone getting a seat on the flight.

Then, the phone rang.

“Uh, huh. OK. Yeah, I understand.” the agent said in a low voice.

Then, she elevated her voice a few octaves for the benefit of everyone in the boarding area.

“So, you’re saying they are ALL taken?  We’re full?  Thanks for the call.”

If I had been carrying a little golden statue, I would have handed it to her.  It was an award-winning performance.

I turned and looked out the window.  The jet bridge was already retreating from the plane’s door.

The male agent quietly said to her, “Damn. I really wanted to put these people on the plane.”

It was departure time.  Despite the boarding delays being self-induced, someone behind the scenes made the decision to push and leave the non-revs behind.  The looks on the others’ faces ranged from dejection to anger.  Those who were paying close attention to what actually happened were the most upset.

I wished my new friend luck and walked away to pursue my backup flight.  I was a guest on that airline with absolutely no right to question the decision.  They had no obligation to accommodate a guy like me from another airline.  As a pilot, I had other options.

However, I do feel they had obligations to their own employees.  The flights that day were all oversold.  To preserve their precious “on-time” statistics, they threw their fellow coworkers under the bus.  How much longer would it have taken to clear those non-revs and get them out of town?

When I first started at United, I was fortunate enough to fly with captains who once flew for Pan Am and Eastern Airlines.  They often told stories of illegal creative ways of boarding non-revs onto airplanes… especially around the holidays.  In those days, things were simpler and less legalistic.  While I don’t advocate breaking the law, I do support people bending over backwards to help one another.

Sadly, in so many ways, those days are gone.


About author

Renewed Pilot

I've endured a roller coaster career in the U.S. Aviation Industry. Currently flying the 737 on my third try with the same legacy carrier, I have also flown for a regional, fractional and start-up carrier. My piloting experience includes the 737, A320, 727, Citation Excel, Citation Bravo, Saab 340 and many light singles and twin engine aircraft. I reside in the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee.

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There are 5 comments

  • Airlines these days (with a few exceptions) generally seem to treat their staff with contempt. However I have found that generally pilots, if they know, still hate to leave anyone behind.

    • I agree. But, their power to do anything about it is quickly eroding. My friends at legacy carriers are being called in for a carpet dance for delaying a few extra minutes for a jump seater left stranded by an agent. That can only happen so many times before people start giving up.

  • Brad says:

    I’ve been there many times. I’ve commuted to ATL, MIA and STL and I think you would probably agree…commuting sucks! Sorry you got left behind. For what it’s worth, if I’m aware of a gate agent leaving ANYONE standing at the gate with seats available, I suddenly find a need to check the radar. Of course this must be done at the gate:) The jet can’t leave without me and I’ll make sure it doesn’t leave without you.

  • Cook says:

    Sorry you got left behind, but as you note, you had other options. Let us please remember that non-rev game is a potential benefit; never a right, especially on another company’s metal. In my day, with much lower load factors, I could haul the family literally around the world with minimal risk and crew commuting was a breeze. I always had a Plan B, but the need was exceedingly rare. While I still have some kind of non-rev benefit, it is essentially worthless. These days, for a solo seat, I have four or five plans; if needing two or more seats, positive space at a reduced fare is the only viable option. And yes, pushing with open seats and on-revs waiting, just to maintain the departure stats SUCKS. Most captains would not do so, but as you note, they don’t always know what’s going on at the gate. Thanks for the great post.

  • Nate says:

    My dad is a Captain for a legacy carrier (perhaps one you used to work for … *wink wink*). He will NEVER leave anyone behind. He always makes sure that if there are open seats, he goes to the gate and ensures there are no non-revs waiting to board. He has caught agents on multiple occasions attempting to close the door just to keep on time.

    Also, when United and Continental were in the early stages of merging operating systems over to SHARES, the legacy United agents were SO SLOW due to having to learn a new system, they were CONSTANTLY not boarding non-revs because they “didn’t have time”. One time I was non-reving out of JFK, there were 8 of us non-revs and there were 8 open seats in FC. The plane was delayed by 15 minutes already due to slow agents, the supervisor came up, told each of us to walk on, find a seat, and “not worry about it” (none of us had a boarding pass in hand). Some agents do the right thing, but it is getting fewer and farther between.

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