Vita Rara: A Life Uncommon

Flying Standby from Chicago O'Hare Airport


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This past Friday I had to be in Chicago for a meeting. I booked a round-trip flight on United, departing Friday morning, returning late Friday evening. There was a Noreaster moving into the North East. My return flight was canceled before I even took off, and I was re-booked on the first flight Saturday, the next morning. I was fine with that.

So, Saturday I get to the airport and the security lines are insane. Worst I've seen in a long time. Worse than Christmas week at O'Hare. Come to find out it's spring break. Well, I make it through security, and run to my gate, to find my flight canceled. I've never been in this situation before. I've only had one prior flight canceled on me, and I realize now that I was a neophyte when it came to flying "stand-by".

As the day went on I realized there were a lot of ingredients that went into who got a stand-by seat.

  • Frequent flier miles,
  • Membership in the airline clubs,
  • How much you paid for your ticket,
  • And probably more that I still don't know about.

One of the things that doesn't seem to factor too heavily into ranking on the stand-by list is how long you've been waiting.

In the end I learned the following lessons if your flight is cancelled:

  • Immediately book the earliest available seat, even if it's days away. Otherwise someone else is going to book it, and if you don't end up getting an earlier stand-by seat, you'll just get home later.
  • Sign up for the frequent flier program for your airline.
  • Always make sure your frequent flier number is on your ticket.
  • Relax, you're likely to be there for a while.
  • If there are a lot of people stranded, because of a weather event, or something like that, book your hotel room early, otherwise you might end up sleeping on the floor.

My United Complaint

In the particular circumstances of my being stranded in Chicago United gets an F. United pro actively canceled flights from Albany to Chicago, and Chicago to Albany. In total United canceled five flights from Chicago to Albany, I don't know how many were canceled in the opposite direction. There were over 100 people on the stand-by list for seats to Albany, with the first open reservation being available on Tuesday. United would not add a single flight to replace the five they had canceled. We were stuck, and we'd get home when United was good and ready to take us home, and not a moment sooner.

It is my belief that due to United's pro active cancellation of flights they could have positioned planes out of the path of the storm allowing the addition of capacity after the storm had cleared. Unfortunately they did not do this. They simply canceled the flights, having already collected the fares, and let people just trickle out. Never having to run those five flights and saving the expenses associated with them, thereby increasing their bottom line.

The kicker in all of this was that according to United all of the flights from Chicago to Albany from Friday until Tuesday were oversold. United knew the passenger demand was there, but they did nothing to serve it.

In the end I canceled by flight on United and flew home on a half full Southwest flight. Southwest has excess capacity on their Chicago to Albany route, and thankfully I benefited. United runs their Chicago to Albany route oversold most of the time, therefore when there is an interruption of service you're stranded. I think I'll fly Southwest to Chicago from now on.