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.
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.
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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