Employees will once again be able to fly standby without capacity restrictions effective July 1st on United Airlines. The move staves off what had been mounting frustration and anger among employees who found one of their primary fringe benefits worthless.
For most employee groups at United, pass privileges–the ability to fly non-revenue, space available (NRSA)–are a benefit, but not a contractual right. Even so, many work for a commercial airline in order to take advantage of that benefit. The idea is that you accept lower base pay, but the chance to “fly the world for free” makes up for some of that.
In reality, standby travel is not free, especially on international flights. In addition to government taxes, imputed taxes are also levied that sometimes make buying a confirmed ticket almost as attractive. But working for a big airline like United opens the door to standby travel around the world on United and many of its partner airlines.
Standby travel also allows many flight attendants or pilots to live in one place and work in another. A flight attendant might live in New Mexico and commute to Denver for work or a pilot live in Florida but commute to Newark. Standby is an essential tool in shuttling back and forth between work and home.
In May, United informed employees they would not be boarded on a standby basis if capacity was a more than 70%. This has essentially killed standby travel for the last two month on many busy routes. With flight schedules extremely limited and demand showing signs of life, flights have been full.
While United made some accommodations for commuting travelers (allowing them positive space travel to/from work), most employees have been essentially unable to use their travel benefits.
There’s already great uncertainty about the future. What will happen on October 1st? How many employees will lose their jobs? One flight attendant told me, “This de facto moratorium on standby travel was like the straw that broke the camel’s back. It simply crushed what little morale was remaining.”
But come July 1st, United employees will once be able to standby for last-available seating on every United flight.
The ability to pass ride again staves off an employee revolt by plugging a drain that was quickly depleting morale. Most of the world may still be off-limits to US citizens, but United has employees all over the world and a sprawling domestic network. The policy will result in fuller flights, but happier employees. As a customer, I’ll take that tradeoff.