To Standby or Not to Standby – and How to Spend the Cash When You Do

So here’s the situation. My wife and I have a deal. When we travel to spend time with her family, children and grandchildren, she pays the airfare. When we travel to spend time with my family, children and grandchildren, I pay the airfare. This can get fairly substantial. I have a gang in San Francisco, for example.

Last week, we spent four days visiting her side of the family. It involved flying from LaGuardia to Akron-Canton Airport in Pennsylvania on Air Tran, a second flight from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, a third flight from Philadelphia to Portland, Maine and a fourth flight from Portland, Maine to LaGuardia, all on US Air.

Our mission involved a family reunion of 50 members of my wife’s family at a racetrack in Wampum, Pennsylvania followed by a picnic in a park in Mount Jackson and then a visit to my wife’s niece, age 14, at a camp in Maine an hour and a half drive from Portland.

Things started off badly when Air Tran kept us on the runway for an hour and a half before we could get off from LaGuardia to Akron-Canton. We sort of expected this.

The question I need to have answered came up two days later on our third flight, the one from Philadelphia to Portland. It was a US Air Flight scheduled to leave at 1:05 p.m. We arrived at the counter an hour early, got our boarding passes, went through security and got to the gate about ten minutes before boarding. When boarding was called, we got on line. My wife was ahead of me. Her ticket was stamped and she went down the ramp. I handed over my ticket. They told me I had to step to one side please. There were people behind me. I did. What was going on? A US Air agent spoke to me.

“The flight is overbooked,” she said. “You are on standby.”

“I’m not on standby,” I said.

“Yes you are. We’re allowed to overbook. And when we do, we pre-select who has to be on standby. You were pre-selected.”

“I have a seat,” I said. “It’s next to my wife.”

“No you don’t.”

“Yes I do. We bought these tickets months ago.”

“Let me see your ticket.”

I handed it to her and she showed it to me. Where it was supposed to say my seat number, it was blank.

“See?”

“Why is this blank? This is a mistake.”

“Because you may not be getting a seat.”

I was getting pretty hot under the collar.

“You can’t do this,” I said.

“Yes we can,” she said.

“If I fail to show up for a flight, you make me pay for it. You charge me for a flight I do not take. Now I pay for this and show up and you won’t let me board? This is outrageous.”

She looked at me blankly.

“Well, we think we won’t have a problem. We have a volunteer, so we just have to take care of that and then you can board,” she said.

Turned out they didn’t have a volunteer. After everybody else boarded, there was a lot of talk on telephones, checking things on charts and running down the jetway and back. The volunteer had changed his mind. They closed the door to the gate. It was done.

I noticed. My blood pressure was going through the roof.

“My wife’s on that flight,” I said.

“You’re on the 4:35 p.m.,” they told me.

“You can’t do this,” I repeated. “You get me on that plane. This is a terrible mistake. I have to be on that plane.”

They re-opened the door. “Get the wife,” one attendant said to another.

Soon Chris appeared. She was even angrier than I was. It was 1:10. This was a one-hour flight. Her niece was in a play at her camp at 7 an hour’s drive from Portland. That was why we were going. They closed the door again. We heard the engines start.

“You are both on a flight at 6:30,” they said.

“What happened to the 4:35 flight?” I asked. I wished I had not said that. That was not the issue. And the 4:35 would be too late. We needed to be on the plane that just left.

“The 4:35 is fully booked now.”

Then it turned out we WERE on the 4:35. Someone at US Air, in the midst of all this confusion, had grabbed the last two seats on that plane for us without telling us. Silly us, one of the attendants smiled. See? We get you there anyway.

There was nothing we could do.

“And here’s the good news,” the attendant said, pressing some buttons on her computer. “You each get money.” She looked first at my wife. “You have been delayed more than two hours. By law, we have to pay you $400. You will get that by mail.”

“I don’t care about the $400,” Chris said. “I wanted to be on that plane and you pulled me off.”

Then the attendant looked at me. “And for you it’s even better. You get a sum four times the cost of your one-way ticket to Portland. Wait here, and I will be back with the check.”

And off she went. Ten minutes later, she was back. The check, handwritten and signed by, perhaps, the President of US Air, was for $640.66.

“Now sir,” she said, handing it to me, “do something good with this check. Don’t spend it all in one place. Don’t gamble it away.”

I looked at it: $640.64 for me. I folded it up and put it in my wallet. And at 4:35 we were off. And we saw her niece after the play.

So here’s the question. I know my wife gets to keep the $400. But do I have to give her the $640.64? I was upset as much as she was. We tried to talk about it. It was on both our minds. But this was a gift to me. A hand-written check for all this money. All for my sorrow and grief. She got hers. This was mine. Yes, she was paying for the airfare. But if I gave her the check, then she would have not paid for the airfare, which was her part of the deal.

I just couldn’t get past the feeling that comes when you are terribly upset and someone tells you that you are to be compensated for it and then hands you a check for a considerable amount made out to you with your name on it.

Should I get at least a piece of it? As I write this, the pure logic of this is coming home. I think writing this piece has just cost me $640.64.

But maybe you think different. Let me know at dan@danspapers.com.

* * *

Waiting for our flight from Portland to LaGuardia two days later, it was easy to see all these people who were apparently wondering if they were going to be put on standby. The agent announced over the loudspeaker that they needed five volunteers.

This is not like the old days, when a plane got fully booked and they told new prospective passengers that they would put them on standby. Now they take everybody’s money and then consider kicking them back off.

It seems to me a couple could make a good living buying tickets, paying for them and then going to the airport hoping to be compensated for the inconvenience caused for being kicked off. It would be a roll of the dice. Some days you’d get to fly to, uh, Moscow. Other days they’d kick you off and pay you $1,040.64. It’s a whole new line of work.

* * *

And what about that trip Chris and I took to Virgin Gorda last winter? I had volunteered to pay the airfare. Yet we didn’t make the connection when we got to San Juan, and I had to pay $655 for the flight we missed and another $655 for the flight we took later in the day. Could that be applied to the current situation with my refund check?

No?

Dan airline check

Courtesy Dan Rattiner

BACK TO Dan Rattiner's Stories