Not all travelers flying on standby are ticketed passengers trying to catch an earlier flight, or hoping to get a seat after a cancellation of missed connection.
Many are actually airline employees, both current and former, or buddy pass-holders (friends and family of airline employees with discount vouchers). In the industry, they are known as non-revenue, or "non-rev" passengers.
Standby seats are rarely given out according to when a passenger is added to the standby list. Ticketed, paying travelers will always get priority. Non-rev passengers are prioritized by status or relationship to the company. For instance, active Delta employees using vacation passes trump active employees without them, though any active Delta employee will be prioritized over a retiree. Delta employees (either active or retired) are more likely to get seated than active Delta Connection employees, and passengers holding buddy passes, as well as Delta Connection retirees, are at the bottom of the pile.
Unlike paying passengers, airline employees and their friends, relatives, and buddy pass travelers don't have to show up at the check-in desk to get added to the standby list.
In the case of Delta Air Lines employees and their traveler partners, for example, there is an application called Delta Travelnet that makes the process for booking non-rev traveler a little easier. And because these travelers are not guaranteed a seat, there is a bit of strategy involved in planning non-rev travel — and that's finding flights that have the space to accommodate extra standby travelers.
Using Delta Travelnet
Travelers using Delta's Travelnet application will log into apps.delta.com, and select the Travelnet link. The default search option is to show “All Direct Flights.” For more options, change the search parameters to “All Flights." This will show flights with connections as well as direct flights. Connecting flights are, generally speaking, better bets than direct flights from major hubs.
Delta Travelnet’s search results page provides flight numbers, origins, destinations, and aircraft types. Just like searching for a conventional ticket, these details matter.
But when flying non-rev, the availability of seats for each flight has a much more direct impact on the likelihood of getting to travel. Travelnet’s search results break down the number of seats available (labeled “Av”), the number of tickets available for sale (labeled “Au”), as well as the total seat capacity (labeled “Cap”) in each cabin. (Capacity numbers are not displayed on mobile devices.)
All airlines plan for no-shows by overselling flights. To find out how many no-shows Delta expects, subtract the number of authorized seats by the number of available seats. The flights most likely to have room for standbys are the flights with the most available seats.
In addition to determining the number of available seats, travelers also need to consider how many other non-rev passengers are planning on taking this flight. Click on the list icon in the search results to show the non-rev passengers already on the standby list for that flight. (On a mobile device, this appears as the “Listed” tab.) No-show rates are even higher for standbys than paid passengers, but a shorter list is better than a longer one.
On the day of the flight, non-rev travelers check in just like regular, paying passengers — only instead of a boarding pass, they get added to the gate agent’s standby list.