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Lessons I’ve Learned Flying Standby

By Lisa Meadows Garfield

airplane photo

I almost always fly standby. It’s often free or very low cost, and it’s my favorite perk of being an airline pilot’s daughter. I’ve been flying standby for decades now, and though the rules are always changing, the life lessons I’ve learned are always applicable.

Lesson Number One: Don’t get attached to Plan A.  

When you’re flying standby, adaptability is key. As airlines reduce flights and tighten up, it’s getting more and more tricky to secure a seat on the flight you want. However, the upside is that the internet has made up-to-date information a matter of touching a few buttons. I can see the real time load status of all the flights, which makes planning much easier. But even so, the flight I list myself on a few days before may very well be full by the time the day arrives, so I am quite frequently making last minute adjustments to my Plan A. I always have a Plan B, Plan C, and Plan D in my back pocket. You could call this lesson “Preparedness.”

To make it more interesting, the “information” I have is not usually the reality of the situation. I sometimes get on overbooked flights because someone doesn’t show up, or connecting flights are too late to wait for.  Once a guy with a paid seat just told the gate agent he wasn’t going. So I went. Occasionally, I wait all day in vain for a seat, and I either sleep in the airport or get a room nearby and try again in the morning. That’s Plan D. Just last week, I flew to California for a conference, intending afterward to fly to Tokyo to visit my son. The flights to Japan were too full to even try, so I ended up on a plane to Portland to visit three of my other children. Plan B, concocted in California on the fly.

Lesson Number Two: Look and be your best self.

Do any of you remember when flying was a big deal and you put on your Sunday best because it was a special event? Standby passengers were, until recently, required to abide by a dress code, which included no denim, no flip-flops, no sweats. Because we “represented the airline” we were to look good. It mattered what we wore. And it mattered how we behaved, especially to the gate agent. Now, we are all ranked by seniority and there’s no messing with the list, but back in the day, if you were extra nice and could get the gate agent to like you, you had a better chance of getting a seat because they had control over who got on and who didn’t. Being nice has real rewards.

Lesson Number Three: We’re all in this together.

I used to go to the Maui Writers’ Conference every summer and stay with my great-aunt in Kihei. The conference always ended on Labor Day, just when all the vacationers were hurrying back from Hawaii to get the kids in school. It’s a terrible day to fly standby. There were often 100 of us standing by for San Francisco, hoping for a seat on any of the six flights out of Kahului that day. It often took all day, hanging out in the airport; our group would dwindle little by little, as people got seats and took off. As the day dragged on, we got to know one another. We shared stories, even lunch, and as each standby name was called, our sturdy, diminishing group would cheer and send each passenger off with much aloha. Standbys offer each other a sense of belonging, of empathy and generosity.

Lesson Number Four: Be grateful.

I never lose touch with the reality of what a privilege it is to be able to fly free. Even last Friday, as I waited for ten hours in the Denver airport, trying to get to Salt Lake City to spend a day with my daughter, my head hurting, hungry and tired, I was grateful. I was grateful for the choices I had, for my opportunity to envision, plan, adapt, and execute. Every day brings a similar opportunity, and every day I live in gratitude.

Flying standby is not for everyone. I am the only one of my siblings who takes advantage of the perk, though we all have the opportunity. Some people like more certainty, more control. Some have less flexibility. But we all have plans that sometimes derail, that require adaptation, sometimes at only a moment’s notice. We all have occasion to be extra nice, not just to get something we want, but for the experience itself. We’re all on this planet together, sharing life, sharing ourselves, which makes the journey so much more rich. I am so grateful — for all of it.

How do you adapt when Plan A doesn’t work?

About Lisa Meadows Garfield

Lisa Meadows Garfield is an award-winning poet and author of “For Love of a Child: Stories of Adoption.“ An avid traveler, she is generally away from her homebase in Vancouver, Washington 9 months of the year, exploring the wide, wonderful world. Mother of 6 and Nonnie to 11, Lisa loves sunshine, words, good friends, and especially, Jesus.

2 thoughts on “Lessons I’ve Learned Flying Standby”

  1. When Plan A doesn't work, I'm getting much, much better at not pouting – it also helps that I'm not expecting A to work, so usually have B-L percolating already. Admitting that it's possible Plan A won't pan out, and that that's ok AND survivable is something I've learnt and come to appreciate.

    Happy trails, Lisa, onward and upward!

  2. For major life events I used to have Plans A-1, A-2, and A-3 lined up–followed by their siblings with letters and numbers at least into the H-4s. My grocery lists looked more like inventory sheets ("Buy this many of item A by Brand B in size C…").

    Then life turned everything (including my plans) upside-down, shook vigorously, and threw them into the wind over rushing water. For a while I stopped planning. (What was the point?)

    Even grocery shopping became impossible. Too many choices. Too much to consider. Too overwhelming.

    One day (about a year later, when I finally humbled myself enough to listen to the advice of other widowed friends) a grief counselor said, "Before you go to the store, make a list."

    Looking back, I can (almost) laugh at myself for having forgotten something so simple. But it worked. For groceries and for life.

    Eventually, I learned to plan again, but with much greater flexibility built in. Plans change. Opportunities come and go. Sometimes the store is out of my favorite brand, so I do without or purchase another. Sometimes what I wanted is on sale so I stock up. With groceries and with life.

    In college someone told me an old Hebrew proverb: "Men make plans, and God laughs." Now I try to join in … sometimes, at least.


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