Retired Pilot Adventure Travel: The Right to Fight for a Seat!


The Definition of Non-Rev Adventure Travel?

Pay No Money, Fight Your Way to the Front of the Line to Be Seen by the Boarding Agent and Pray for a Seat!

As a former pilot and aviation copywriter with a passion for the kind of adventure travel that those of us who play non-rev roulette experience, I love the challenge – most of the time – of finding a seat, any seat, maybe even a first-class seat!

My wife and I decided to leave SFO enroute to Bogota, Colombia, her country of origin, on New Year’s Eve day, 2016. We figured the rest of the world would be warming up for the evening’s festivities so that we might be able to sneak out of town and non-rev on a flight before anyone noticed. It also just happened to be Friday, 31st December 2016; not the best day in anyone’s book to non-rev.

In preparation for our travels and to stay busy and off the computer, checking the passenger loads every half hour, I decided to come up with some rules for non-rev travel for my own use.

Regarding our strange and wonderful world of retired airline employee free, standby airline travel benefits here are those rules that I try to adhere to when I’m not catatonic from the stress of trying to weasel us into position for a free seat.

Rule number one: Airline employees should never travel on a Friday because that’s usually the busiest travel day of the week and you’re sure to get bumped by revenue passengers.

Rule number two: Break rule number one if you check the passenger load and it looks like one, or in our case, two seats might be open.

Exception to Rule number two: We figured since this is the holiday season and the world is already in a state of chaos and confusion, what the heck, why not travel on Friday!

Rule number three: Release all expectations of being treated humanely by harried airport employees, especially gate agents over the holidays. This is the time when they are more grossly abused and stressed than normal by scared, outraged, demanding passengers.

Rule number four: If by chance, a “pass rider” – as we are known in the aviation world – should be blessed with open seats on a Friday flight and have caring, concerned gate agents working your flight, forget the rules except for Rule number five below.

Rule number five: Never, ever forget to profusely thank the gate agent working your flight; offer to buy them coffee or promise to name your firstborn after them for getting you one, or two seats, regardless if the seat is in the last row of the airplane, against the bulkhead, in earshot of a flushing toilet, or in the middle seat between two Biggest Loser applicants.


Begins the Journey, Anticipating But Not Expecting, Blessings

I learned early on in my flying life to begin every journey with a prayer. A prayer of thanks to God for the abundance we are blessed with, a prayer of safety, of mercy, and last but not least, a prayer for getting a seat in first, or even business class.

After a 4 am getup, we hustled to get out the door by 5, made it by 5:10, me dealing with life-long travel anxiety, exacerbated by 35 years of “making schedule” as a professional pilot.

Traffic on Highway 101 south to SFO from our home in Sonoma County, California was a non-issue due to, I can only assume, most of the world prepping for their celebration by taking Friday off.

It was weird, even though there was light traffic, there was a palpable feeling of every one rushing to get somewhere, as traffic rolled at 80 mph plus. It was the quickest trip through San Francisco on 19th avenue, thankfully not at 80 mph, that I can remember at that time of the morning.


Boarding Area Jitters

Have you ever noticed, the closer it gets to departure time, the more us non-revers seem to tighten up? At least I do.

The good news this time is that I managed to keep a lid on my pre-departure OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) by trying to focus on my breathing, moving my lips in silent prayer, and trying to maintain a life-long practice of a false sense of outward composure.

Pre-flight jitters are especially prevalent among non-revenue freeloaders at the departure gate as we anxiously scan the seating charts above the gate for our name at the top of the standby list or for anything else that could possibly indicate our getting a free seat. After all, that’s the main reason we ever went to work for an airline, right!

Keeping a lid on the pre-flight jitters while attempting to maintain a scan of the boarding area for possible threats to our free seats is great training for aviators who need to keep their situational awareness fine-tuned.

How this happened, I still don’t have a clue; we both got TSA pre-check that allowed us to jump in the short security line. This prevented me from having to exercise my “over 75 exemption,” a very sweet deal for those of us who qualify for the exemption or just plain look old!

My wife and I got to the gate, looked up at the boarding sign above the gate and we were number 1 and 2 on the standby list! It only took me getting up at o’dark thirty the day before the flight to do my 24-hour check-in ritual in order to bag the 1 and 2 slots.

To do that, I get up about 15 minutes before the 24-hour pre-flight check-in, make coffee, then hover like some kind of a human drone over my computer keyboard, while watching the clock strike the exact minute and second, 24 hours before our scheduled departure time the next day.

What motivates me to do this stupid ritual is my imagining the other free-loaders throughout the entire San Francisco bay area, doing the same thing, hovering over their computers, waiting to beat me to the punch.

Once inside the terminal, we head to the gate where I continue my scan for any possible threats.

At the gate, the agent picks up the mike, clears her throat and makes the dreaded call; “The flight has checked in full!” Our expectations of a first-class seat, out the window!

I begin a new scan of the departure gate monitor, checking for any other flights headed roughly in the direction of our destination for a possible alternate plan of action. My wife says, “Relax, we’ll get on.”

Yeah, she can say that but I know better. I’ve been doing this for 35 years and I know what can happen.

She’s right, things were looking up, regardless. The two gate agent ladies working the flight were very friendly, and, almost as good as first class, gave us two emergency exit row seats, with the seat between us open! My wife looks over at me and I say, “Hey, we were lucky this time.”

She knows better and says, “We’re blessed.” Yeah, yeah, I know; that and 35 years of seniority!

Then, just before the cabin door closes, one of the lady agents strolls back in the cabin, stops at our seats, and says, “I have one seat in first class open, do one of you want it!?”

I look at Janeth, she looks at me and I say, “Thank you but I think we’ll stay put.” And then, I think to myself, “I know exactly what would have happened to our relationship if I took that seat!”