Full Disclaimer: This blog post is full of whining and complaining about what a former colleague of mine would call “FWP” or “first world problems”!! I so get that I am super lucky to have the ability to travel as I do, both in terms of having the luxury and privilege of being employed in a job that offers annual paid vacation time and also in terms of having the means to pay for accommodations and standby travel; even though it’s cheaper than how some people travel, I fully recognize that most people don’t get to travel like this at all. That said, within the context of said travel, I am going to get my complain on. So if y’all can’t handle it, you should stop reading now and go back to consuming whatever more worthy online crap you were consuming before the internetz rabbit hole led you here.
So my partner is a pilot with an airline in Canada. And even though it’s a small regional airline, it’s one that has some awesome reciprocal agreements with partner airlines, which means we (her partner and kids) can all travel much cheaper than market value, and she even more cheaply (and in some cases even free).
But it’s standby. That means not confirmed. As in, you could be waiting a gazillion years before a seat comes up on a flight you want/need to get where you’re trying to go. And the more people you’re traveling with, the less likely it is you will get your first choice. Especially when traveling with a partner airline, because there’s a whole ranking system, and if you’re the family of a person working for an airline other than the one you’re trying to travel on, you’re basically at the bottom of the list. A third (or fourth or fifth) class citizen, as it were.
Below an illustration of how this played out recently. We were lucky in that it’s a fairly seamless example, but hard travel nonetheless.
Three of us had decided to use our 10 days of vacation time (and in the case of our kid who was joining us, his 7 skipped days of school) to try and get to Thailand. Unless we wanted to pay upwards of $1000 a person for a guaranteed seat, we had to figure out which partner airlines (that have the agreement with my bae’s airline) fly from Toronto to somewhere in Thailand, or to a place that has other qualifying flights to Thailand.
We quickly established that we’d likely have to go through Hong Kong, staying a night or two in an AirBnB there before trying our luck with a flight to Phuket, where we had rented an apartment for a week and arranged for some diving and snorkelling.
There were a few options, the “easiest” of which was a non-stop Cathay Pacific flight from YYZ to HKG. It leaves in the afternoon on Friday, and arrives in Hong Kong sometime on Saturday evening.
The only problem is that it was oversold, and already had three people (who were not us) on the standby list. So we decided not to risk it.
Flying standby successfully depends largely on one’s ability to predict the likelihood of finding an empty seat on any given flight. Knowledge is power. But knowing the loads means requiring access to inside information not usually available to those outside of airline staff. Out of this necessity, and thanks to the power of modern technology, an online network of inter-airline collegiality exists in a way that most people outside of the aviation industry cannot possibly imagine. Even if you don’t directly know someone who works for the airline you want to fly with and can check the loads for you on their internal systems, chances are you know someone who used to fly with someone who flew with a friend of someone who works for that airline. And if not, there’s always the apps and the facebook groups, the ones where you plug in your desperate plea, and some bored keener with inside information will give you the best available intel at that time.
So my partner obsessively googled and texted.
The next best options where all out of Newark, which conveniently is a destination her airline frequents. Lots of available connecting flights to Hong Kong there.
Alas, not a lot of space to get from Toronto *to* Newark.
So back to researching.
We finally decided to fly United to San Francisco, and try our luck with a connecting flight departing 45 minutes later to Hong Kong. If we were successful in getting on both flights, it would mean 22 hours of flying through multiple time zones over the subsequent 24 hours, but it looked like our best option, meaning that we were more likely to be doing 22 hours of flying than 40+ hours of sitting around an airport! The loads for the first leg were looking VERY good, and the second leg (assuming we could make it from one plane to the next in time) seemed to have just enough seats for us, based on the latest intel from an airline colleague.
With some free pens and chocolate, and a little sweet talking to the United CSRs in YYZ, we landed ourselves some adjacent seats on the first flight, and spent the next 6 hours strategizing (with support from an eager flight attendant) how we would manage our assorted carry-on luggage for the run from one terminal to the next, in order to attempt our luck with the connecting flight. It was an uncomfortable 6 hours, but the adrenaline from our first foray into international standby travel was flowing, and so the pain that lay ahead did not really sink in until much later.
The standby gods were smiling on us as we raced from one terminal to the next in San Francisco, arriving just in time to board the connecting flight to Hong Kong — we’d all three of us successfully obtained seats on this flight, too.
And the flight that lay ahead was 16 hours. The longest I’d ever been on a plane in one stretch.
As I squeezed into my allotted 18 square inches, the burden of long haul travel sunk in. I had not slept more than about 20 minutes on the preceding flight, largely because my sweet but largish teenager kept leaning against me in his own pursuit of the elusive unconscious. And now I was squeezed in between two strangers, both of whom seemed to have little concept of physical boundaries, as I soon discovered. Encroaching elbows, arms and legs turned from mildly annoying in the first several hours to claustrophobia-inducing through the middle third of the flight.
After sobbing through “The Art of Riding in the Rain” (I digress, but you gotta see this movie! So sweet!! I’d read the book some years back, and they did a really nice job with the film version) and attempting for a few hours to sleep upright in my narrower-than-I-remember economy class seat, and failing to do so, despite my comfy memory foam pillow, eye patch and noise canceling headphones, I decided to go for a walk and find my partner.
I soon found her, luxuriously stretched out and fast asleep, in the middle of aisle 40, a few rows back on the other side of the plane.
Granted, hers was also a middle seat. But whereas I was sentenced to 16 hours between two man-spreaders in a standard, narrow row of squishy seats in in inadequate armrests, my skinny little girlfriend who can sleep in any position anyway had been assigned to an exit row, the one right next to the lavs, so that she had BAGS of room. Moreover, her seat was ensconced on either side with a solid half wall that firmly delineated her space from that of her neighbours’, hence protecting her from wandering lower limbs.
I considered waking her up and demanding a seat exchange for the remainder of the flight, but I figured it was better for one of us to get a decent night’s sleep than for neither of us to. (My motives were partly selfish: I knew that she would be better equipped to deal with my inevitable meltdown at some point later in the journey if she had slept a while at least.)
So instead I rummaged through her bag for a cheese sandwich I knew she had packed for me earlier, left her a hastily-scribbled note begging her to come find me when she woke up, and ventured to the back of the cabin, where one of the flight attendants indulged with me a cup of hot tea and surprised me with the fact that she was in her 53rd year of working as an FA with United!!! I was very impressed, and stayed a while to shoot the breeze with her and her colleagues, learning a little more about the secret lives of cabin crew on long haul flights such as these. She was gorgeous, by the way. Bright eyes, beautiful white hair and an engaging smile. I can only imagine the adventures she’s had over the years.
My tea and chat finished, I returned to my partner’s row to see if she might be awake now, so that I could have some reprieve from my cramped quarters for a while. Alas, she was slumped forward in her seat, legs splayed out in front of her, with her hood drawn low over hear eyes to block out the light. And still asleep. Blast it!
So I decided to make a quick pit stop on the way back to the man spreaders.
But there is no “quick” on an aircraft of this size. Despite having three lavs right there in the immediate vicinity, all three were occupied, and remained so for the next ten minutes or so. What the temporary inhabitants where doing in there for that long, I don’t even want to imagine, but suffice it to say that by the time one of the tiny stalls finally became available, my bathroom visit of boredom had become one of necessity, and I actually had to pee!!
Sleeping beauty was still, well, sleeping, so I returned to my row, climbed over the lightly snoring man spreader in seat C, and crawled back into my 18 inches. I was unpleasantly surprised to find that the last 8 hours had begun to produce a body and mouth odour from my neighbours that was less than desirable. Convinced I would never sleep again, I resigned myself to writing down my adventures thus far, my typing abilities more than marginally hindered by my tight quarters.
Only 8 hours to go.