Flying standby used to be a relatively simple endeavor: you showed up at the gate and if there was a seat you got it. Not too difficult to manage, really. Then the airlines realized that they could make money from folks who wanted to fly standby and things got way more complicated. But on my JetBlue flight from JFK to Boston yesterday I experienced the most interesting version of a standby policy I’ve ever seen.
I arrived at the airport expecting to just relax a bit before my flight, not even thinking about flying out early. That was before I got the notice that my flight was going to be an hour late and likely cause me to miss my dinner in Boston. With a bit of motivation and luck that the TSA line was pretty quick I was through to the gate 20 minutes prior to the earlier flight’s scheduled departure time. Surely it would be no problem to get myself on a standby list and, with any luck, up to Boston in time for dinner. The gate agent was busy so I stepped over to the service center right next to the gate.
"Sorry, but you cannot be added to the standby list. The flight is closed."
Mind you they were still boarding the flight and they had a dozen or so folks standing around waiting to see who would clear off the standby list into one of the few empty seats still available, but they guy I was speaking with insisted the flight was "closed." I tried with the gate as well and couldn’t even get a word in before I was dismissed by the agent. At this point it was pretty clear I was not getting on the flight but I was also curious to see how the event would play out as there were a number of non-revenue passengers also waiting for seats and I was curious how many of them would get to fly ahead of a revenue customer. The answer was at least 5.
That number would have been lower as the gate agent was clearing all the standby customers into seats, including the non-revs who could ride jump seat. I give a lot of credit to the pilot who was flying as a non-rev who insisted that they put her in the cockpit for the sake of getting one more standby on the plane. The gate agent working the flight was actually annoyed by this as it meant more paperwork for her.
When I asked for an explanation at the gate I was told that there was nothing they could do for me there and that I should proceed to the Service Center for a supervisor to explain the situation to me. I walked the 20 steps back over there and asked the same guy I was speaking with earlier to speak with the supervisor as the gate agent instructed me. He picked up the phone and called the supervisor on duty. It was the woman working that gate who sent me away. Apparently she had no desire to explain what the policy was or why they were taking non-revenue customers over revenue ones so I was told I could wait a few minutes for another supervisor to show up.
I guess they figured I’d eventually leave as the supervisor I was promised never materialized. I waited 90 minutes and he never showed. He did call in at one point and I explained the situation to him so I believe he really exists, but I sat there for 90 minutes and he didn’t actually show up and answer the questions at hand. I also left my contact information so that he could call or email me once he did get an answer. Sadly, though not surprisingly that call never came. They did give me a $12 meal voucher for my trouble but that isn’t worth nearly the same as actually getting where I wanted to be when they should’ve been able to get me there. And the 90 minute wait for a supervisor because the other one couldn’t be bothered to explain the policy was pretty poor form.
The JetBlue website help page on the topic doesn’t have any more useful details. There is no mention of a cutoff time or anything else that suggests that non-revs should be seated ahead of revenue customers. And the conversation I had on the phone with the supervisor suggests that they screwed up but no one can confirm the actual policy for me. Even reaching out to a contact inside the company only got me some maybes and sortofs rather than a real policy. Really quite frustrating.
Will this stop me from flying with JetBlue in the future? Probably not. The product in the air is still probably the best coach flying available in the USA. But the inexplicable policy of restricting the waitlist so far in advance and taking non-revenue customers over revenue passengers is certainly that rubs me the wrong way and will certainly make me consider other options, particularly when I know that there might be some give in my schedule and that I might want to fly out a bit early. They may not charge, but the inability to actually get on the list within 30 minutes of departure makes that benefit rather less valuable.
Other than arrive 45 minutes late the flight was fine. No real complaints there. But the standby policy appears to have a rather notable problem.