Standby, Southwest: But is it a real benefit?


Southwest Airlines finally added a free “standby” option for it’s A-List and A-List Preferred members, breaking with a long-standing policy of not allowing free changes on the day of travel. Alas, the new benefit is far from useful for the vast majority of flights and routes the carrier operates.

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As with any such benefit the devil is in the details and in this case there is a significant detail listed in the fine print (emphasis mine):

**Free same-day standby is not available at Southwest kiosks. Please see a Customer Service Agent at the airport for this benefit. New flight must depart within two hours of original scheduled departure, between the same city pairs, and on the original date of travel. On flights outside of the two-hour free same-day standby window, A-List and A-List Preferred Members will receive priority standby and will be required to pay the difference in fare if a seat becomes available. Free same-day standby and priority standby will not be provided for non-A-List or non-A-List Preferred Members in the same reservation. All Rapid Rewards Rules and Regulations apply.

Original date of travel isn’t particularly restrictive (nearly everyone else requires the same; United is more lenient) and the same city-pair part is pretty consistent, too, though some airlines allow for an alternate airport in the same metro area (e.g. LaGuardia instead of JFK or vv). But that two hour window from the original departure time. It also must be requested at the airport which mostly eliminates the utility of the same-day change to fly on a later departure. That’s rough. Of course, just how rough it is depends on what route you happen to frequent. And that means digging in to schedule data to see what the numbers really look like.

On Monday, September 19, 2016 Southwest Airlines has 3,710 flights scheduled covering 1,236 routes (I’m counting A->B and B->A separately since the flight times will vary between them, affecting standby options). Of those, 399 routes are only flown once daily so they are immediately eliminated from consideration. That leaves 837 other routes to consider. Of these only 232 have multiple flights spaced within the 120 minute window that allows for standby travel. That’s only 18.77% of routes where the new benefit is viable at all. Those 232 routes have a combined total of 908 flights a traveler could be booked on and conceivably catch an earlier flight for free, nearly 25% of the flights in the system. The 232 routes cover 52 departure airports.

Not surprisingly, the routes where standby will work well are heavily focused in Texas and California where the carrier has several routes with very high frequencies. Between Houston and Dallas there are more than 40 flights each direction within the 2-hour window, allowing for easy standby option, though not more than 40 daily flights. They are so closely bunched that a booking on one could leave multiple other standby options available. With five flights from Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale on Monday only the first two are within the 120-minute window, meaning an A-List booking on the 10:50a flight could potentially catch the 8:55a for free but booking on the others leaves no free standby options; that is far less useful for most travelers. Here’s a list of the top 20 routes for standby travel in terms of options relative to total flights and also the worst for such.

The best routes Southwest Airlines offers for standby travel under the new rules
The best routes Southwest Airlines offers for standby travel under the new rules
The worst routes for standby on Southwest Airlines (though at least still possible)
The worst routes for standby on Southwest Airlines (though at least still possible)

It should come as no surprise that the high frequency routes work better for this benefit. And there are more that work than I expected would. That said, the numbers are still not great and, compared to what other carriers offer on day of travel for their elite frequent flyer members, it still comes up far short.

Got questions about the data or a particular route or departure city? Ask away and I’ll dig up some answers.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

15 Comments

  1. the 2-hour window simply makes it far too restrictive. UA’s SDC is far more useful, to a point that one can :

    1. fly out the night before
    2. change to a later departure time to stay at your destination a bit longer
    3. switch connection routing if one believes it may increase their chance of upgrade, or avoid inclement weather (some delays but not bad enough that UA has issued a waiver) that is affecting one hub.
    4. to it right from the smartphone app
    5. available for pretty much any route that is entirely on UA+UAX metal instead of the tiny list of airport pairs above.
    6. actually a free confirmed seat for mid tier elites or higher, instead of being just “standby” and getting the left-over non-reclinable middle seats after all the regular pax have boarded.

    1. UA’s is the best in the industry. By far. JetBlue has a reasonable offer for such a small carrier The limited route footprint makes it similarly challenged in many markets, though for 1x daily routes they’ll allow day prior travel which is nice. And for Mosaic (elite) members it seems nearly anything goes.

    2. I thought you only got a confirmed seat (regardless of elite status) if the same fare class you booked was available on the new flight; otherwise, you had to go standby regardless?

  2. Great analysis! I wonder what it would look like at 3 hours instead of 2.

    Where did you get your schedule dataset from?

    1. At 3 hours it would be 347 routes versus 232. Still a very small subset of the total operations.

      As for my data, a non-public source.

  3. Great Post and analysis – One question. It might be a little better than the analysis predicts. I thought southwest allowed stand-by changes for the equivalent city destinations. Like LAX and LGB or OAK and SFO?

    It would be it would be interesting to know if you can fly standby on a SAN-SFO flight that leaves within 2 hrs of an original SAN-OAK flight?

  4. I think they think they can move more passengers this way, so will be able to sell more seats, and just frame this as a benefit…

    If your flight becomes delayed by more than 15 min they allow free standby or even free change to an earlier flight anyway. I’ve also had really good luck just asking to get on an earlier flight, load permitting etc, but also always just within 2 hours or so.

  5. I (used to) travel often between Dallas and Houston on business. If my meeting ended earlier than planned, I would go to the airport and ask to get on an earlier flight, which always happened. You’re there, empty seat, go.

    I have not done this lately. Has Southwest stopped allowing this type of activity? Is it now limited to A listers? This new benefit sounds like what used to be business as usual.

    1. What you’re describing was not in policy. The official rule was that any difference in fare was supposed to be collected to allow that switch. If the fare was the same then no big deal but that is not often the case, especially on day of travel compared to WGA fares purchased well in advance.

  6. Being up go 2 hours late everyone gets free standby. It’s the flat tire rule.

    The new part is being up to 2 hours early. Flight schedules these days are bunched near peak travel hours to the extent feasible. That means more chance of free standby at peak hours, but also more chance that the only alternate flight will be less than an hour earlier.

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