Southwest’s Ridiculous Standby Policy

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OK, I’ll admit it.  I fly Southwest Airlines every week.  I have achieved A-List Preferred, their top tier elite status, as well as a holder of the lucrative Companion Pass. While international travel is my aspiration, I have tried and tried (and tried) to find a legacy carrier to get me from point A to point B without hassle.  Unfortunately as a Chicago flier, both United and AA have let me down with frequent delays and cancellations for domestic travel. I don’t fully blame the airlines as I know O’Hare is a disaster sometimes, but Southwest has been pretty immune to these problems with my city pairs so I stick with them.

Southwest Airlines identifies themselves as a Customer Service company who happens to fly airplanes.  In most cases, I can agree as they have customer friendly policies of no checked bag fees and more importantly, no change fees! In fact, you can actually book an award flight on points, miss your flight based on your own mistake, and they will return those points to you for future travel! That being said, it baffles me how their standby policy so vehemently contradicts their other customer friendly policies.

I booked an award flight to Denver this weekend coming from Chicago. My flight was at 8:20PM.  I arrived a little early so I walked to the gate for the 7:45PM flight.  I figured the flight was likely full but it doesn’t hurt to be put on the standby list to save a half hour.


Southwest Friday Night Flights

The Southwest Airlines gate agent took my ticket, started hammering on the keys of the computer, and let me know she could add me to the standby list for only a 24,000 points upcharge.  WHAT!  In Rapids Rewards math, that is worth 400 dollars worth of flying!  Southwest wants to charge me 24,000 points to let me take an open seat on a one-way flight that is 35 minutes earlier when the entire round trip flight cost 15721 points.  Umm, I’ll pass.

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About alex

Alex loves to travel and does so a lot. Logging 100,000 flight miles each year over the past 4 years, Alex uses points and miles to power his passion. Alex is continuously striving to experience the far reaches of the globe. In his day job, Alex is a Management Consultant frequently on the road advising Technology organizations. I love thinking about, reading about, and talking about all things travel. Feel free to reach me at

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  1. Free Same Day Standby – which almost all airlines offer their elites – is often more valuable than Southwest’s “no change fees but we’ll increase you fare to the walk up fare” policy

  2. I think you have to choose between change fees, which people hate, and an up-sell to current prices, which seems unfair. I prefer change fees. At least I’m paying because I want an exception to what I originally bought. (Of course, I would also like it if United had to pay ME a change fee whenever it adjusted its schedule.)

  3. I don’t fly Southwest but this is good to know in case my territory ever changes. Thanks Alex!

  4. I flew SW on award points and missed the 1pm flight by my own mistake. They allowed me to stanby for next flight.

  5. I had a similar experience. Except mine was stupidity (a mis-click and not paying attention). I accidentally booked a flight from BWI to Nashville for a Wednesday night instead of a Tuesday night. I show up with bags in hand only to have the agent tell me my flight is 24 hours away. I check availability and see that there are plenty of open seats. I say, ok, southwest, you will just let me jump on a flight that takes off in an hour and open my seat up tomorrow night, just in case you sell it and we are both happy. WRONG. They were going to charge me the street fare as well and I refused it. How is this at all a smart business decision? Give me the flight that you have no chance of selling and take back my ticket that you may actually sell. I think the problem with southwest is that they don’t give their employees any discretion…I think that could go a long way.

  6. I had the same thing happen to me in Atlanta today. Got to the airport really early, because I’ve had previous terrible experiences with leaving out of Mansfield–Jackson. $190 to go on the 1 hour-earlier flight. I passed!

  7. The problem is that SW could have accommodated the passenger on a flight with an empty seat that wasn’t going to be sold – giving the passenger the benefit of an earlier arrival at destination or connecting point at no cost to SW and opening up a seat on a later flight that might be able to be sold or increase flexibility in the event of IRROPs. Rather than giving the passenger that courtesy, either for free or for a nominal fee, SW charges and exorbinant amount for that.

  8. No change fees is the more valuable to me. It helps tremendously with cost-efficient planning, especially for personal trips I may not get to take or may have to change. When I’m at the airport early, it is only on business trips. Those are the trips for which I am more likely to have a regular fare ticket and having a regular fare ticket means no fare upgrade for standby. Generally if you get to the airport within two hours of missing your flight or also I think if your flight is delayed, you will not have to pay the fare difference. For taking the earlier flight, I don’t know what the agents do if you get there right when the flight is about to close. As to SW selling the seat that would go out empty, I suppose SW figures someone might pay or a regular fare standby might come along. Most of the flights I am on are pretty much full.

  9. I should add that the fare upgrade for standby impact is a downside of the change in SW’s Rapid Rewards program from the free ticket [of course plus the September 11 fee] to the points system, as the points cost is linked to current available dollar cost while the free ticket was tied to seat availability. But the program has its upsides too.

  10. I’ve noticed this as a problem too. I used to be able to request to fly an earlier flight or change flights without any problems; if they have room, they’ll accommodate you without any charges/problems. Looking back I seems to be AGES ago. I’ve tried to get on an earlier flight a month ago. They wanted me to pay the last minute full fare difference! I don’t think so! But I still like their 2 free bags & no change fee policy. Scored a 50% savings on a leg of my upcoming trip when I found it went on sale after my booking! 🙂

  11. I have missed many a flight on SWA (both award travel and paid travel) and have never had issue with stand by. Mus be the agent. I flew to Vegas from BWI last year and overslept for my return, got to the gate and the gentleman said, “Oh, you were the one we were calling… let me just book you on the next flight back – it will connect, but it is the quickest way back to BWI”.

    SWA is the best airline for fares, luggage and changes – hands down. Their only downfall is the lack of routes to some major cities and this perception they are a “low class airline”. Ha…

  12. I agree, this is the most frustrating thing about Southwest but keep in mind it is business and I’m sure they’ve compared the costs of changing the policy and achieving a bit more good will with their customers vs. revenue achieved by those on expense acct and go ahead with the additional chg since it’s not out of their pocket.

  13. Thank you! I found this article on Google when I started thinking I might be crazy for getting annoyed about this. When I was flying from NY to Las Vegas last summer I got to my connection in Phoenix early and saw there was an earlier flight to Vegas leaving in 20 minutes. So I ran through the terminal to the gate and asked if there were any open seats, and the agent informed me that there were indeed seats. Success! Except then she took my ticket, looked on the computer, and said it’d be something like $175 to get on that flight. I declined and sat in the airport for 3+ hours instead.

    It seems to me like such an easy way to appease a customer without costing you anything. When faced with these options:
    1) Having a really happy customer and having one less empty seat on a flight that’s leaving in 15 minutes, OR
    2) Having a really annoyed customer and an empty seat
    They chose #2. And it definitely reeks of #2.

    So when I got home I emailed SWA asking about the policy, and got a response saying:

    “We regret your disappointment when you were required to pay the appropriate fare difference to fly standby on an earlier flight. Since our discounted fares are flight, date, and time specific, standby travel is not permitted; therefore, you must pay the difference between your discounted fare and our Anytime Fare if you request to fly standby. You see, the incentive to purchase full fare tickets would significantly decrease if we allowed Customers who purchased discounted reservations to travel standby on any flight with seats available without charging the applicable fare.”

    First off, thanks for writing to me like I’m a 4-year-old. Second, I get that you don’t want passengers to book a cheaper flight then show up early and say “hey put me on standby.” That makes perfect sense. But it makes no sense when I’m connecting and I’m already at the connection airport. I’m not trying to scam you here. Thanks for treating me like a dirtbag, though. So much for customer service.

    Sorry for the long rant on a 4-month old post. I just had to share in case anyone comes Googling along and sees this post like I did.

  14. I agree it’s absurd. I have a similar situation on Wednesday. The flight I am currently booked on is SOLD OUT. They are likely to have to pay someone to fly on later flight. I’d like to change to the earlier flight but not if I have to pay more than 20000 points. I’m tempted to volunteer my seat, hope I get a few hundred dollars in vouchers, and then write to them with a picture of the voucher to show them how their policy actually cost them more money than it would have cost them to move me to the earlier flight with seats available.

  15. Actually before I do what I said I might do, I will see if I can use logical persuasion to try to get on the earlier flight without a fee. I’ve never tried it with Southwest but it has worked with a legacy carrier that I often use.

  16. Well I have egg on my face – the flight I was booked on wasn’t looking for volunteers and I got there too late for the early flight anyway!

  17. One thing you have to watch for on Southwest even if they will let you change [or you’re willing to pay the charges] is that earlier flights often arrive later. I’m currently booked on a 6PM flight because many of the earlier departures are longer flights with stops that arrive later. I usually look for least time in the air.

  18. While I don’t disagree Southwest’s standby policy is absurd, virtually every airline charges non-elites for same day changes. So why is everyone arguing that Southwest should allow people to standby for free because there is space on the plane? Are you also arguing that every airline should allow free standby and same day changes to all customers?

  19. I’m Southwest A-List and their stand-by policy has always been a sticking point with me. As it happens, now pretty much every other carrier charges for same-day stand-by but that is usually waived for elites. Well, not at SWA. Recently I was denied the ability to upgrade on a flight that went out half-full. My flight — the next flight — 90 mins after the 1st — was oversold. I took the bump ‘cuz it netted me a $275 voucher as opposed to the $150-ish it would have cost me to upgrade to the earlier flight. The customer service rep (good-naturedly) gave me grief about taking a later flight when I fought so hard to take the earlier one. “Well, darlin’ — to go earlier I was gonna have to pay you. To go later YOU are gonna have to pay ME.” I guess it all works out in the eyes of the Airline Gods, LOL. But I really hope SWA re-thinks their stand-by policy, especially for elites.

  20. @Amit – The big mistake Southwest makes is treating its high value business travelers to conversations similar to what MikeABQ notes below. I’ve had the same conversation many, many times. Many of my colleagues who refuse to use Southwest cite the ridiculous standby policy as a top deterrent.

  21. That is ridiculous… to make matter worse, when I had a flight canceled into SFO for weather, it was a mad dash to get in line for another flight into OAK. Having A-List Plus and Companion Pass did nothing for me. I had to wait at the end of the line and wasn’t able to get on to that next flight… and I think I even had paid for a Business Class tickets. Southwest, sometimes you make it so hard to love you.

  22. Just had the same experience. They have a mildly pissed off A-lister instead of a continued raving fan. Dumb.

  23. Compare this with Delta which allowed me to change my flight free of charge the day before (as a Medallion member). Southwest actually flew the same route, but I could not use them because… wait for it… they were much more expensive.

  24. I’m also on the A-List and my company won’t allow the anytime fare to be purchased because it is so much higher. They will let me take other airlines and now that this standby up charge has been given to me twice, I have decided to give United more of my business because I am Gold elite status an can standby for free. Southwest USED to be focused on pleasing all fliers, but now they are losing their most valuable commodity, business travelers. Too bad.

  25. My experience has been that Southwest will waive the standby (up charge) if your original flight is delayed. I have taken advantage of this on numerous occasions. I always sign up for flight status notifications because of this. Even if my flight is 5 minutes delayed, I try to arrive early enough for the earlier flight if possible.

  26. Southwest is clearly no longer the airline that Herb built! They are not set up for the business traveler. It does not matter if a flight is 1/2 full they will not let someone fly stand bye without paying $50. So unlike a other airlines where if you get the airport early or finish a meeting early you can go stand by and get on an earlier flight for free not so with Southwest. Thank God for American! Southwest the airline for the non-business flier and the business fliers are not feeling the LOVE

  27. I fly Southwest very frequently as well. I’ve become conditioned to planning for the potential need to get an earlier or later flight when I pick between ‘wanna get away’ fares and business select. I think that’s their plan. I liken it to one of my first jobs at a 1-hour photo processing place. We offered 1-hr service, 24-hour service and 7 day service at different pricing. We found that people realized the photos were being processed as soon as the workload permitted and would return early to pick up their pics even though they didn’t pay for that level of service. We were instructed to tell those customers their photos weren’t ready even if they were. Ahhh…a profit deal. Capitalism at its best.

  28. It is important for all of us to remember if we work fir companies that provide goods and services to airlines, do not ever cut them any slack. I think the lack of empathy stance all airlines have exhibited fires to show how it if rich they are with the consumer and a bit of their own medicine will help show them the err in their ways.

  29. UPDATE. I Was traveling on pts from DSM-LAS-SNA. they got us to LAS 30 minutes early. so we went to the agent and asked about standby. Gate agent said no problem it costs 5.60 each. I thought wow. We got called up, lady puts about 8 print outs in front of me. One said $425 (total $850), I inquired, she looked confused then said ‘oh you are on pts’ it is just 5.60 (11.20). Ok no problem. We get there a measly two hours early. I check my credit card on monday. they charged my wife and I 5.60 each plus $425 each. So I paid $850 for two hours of my time. SWA customoer service at all levels says it is my fault. Biggest insult is my wife had 50k rewards pts that would have covered the cost anyways. Customer Relations said we purchased $850 worth of pts at the gate, ‘so too bad”

  30. If there are open seats and they’re about to close the door, why-oh-why wouldn’t you let an a-lister fly standby?

    I asked a gate agent literally 19 minutes ago at BWI if i could hop on the earlier ATL flight at 5:15pm….my original was 7pm. She says sure that’ll be 262.50. I said i want to g I standby, not confirm.

    I thought this would jog her out of robot mode, but no. I politely say you’re about to close the door where no more fares can possibly be sold.

    This journey in logic was no match for her policy adherence. I declined the upcharge and am at BWI typing this now…90 minutes to go.

    This policy is faulty in logic as well as customer service oriented.

  31. Same thing happening to me right now—sitting in the airport watching Southwest close the doors on an earlier flight with 12 empty seats. They wouldn’t let me change without paying $150. Those seats are worth $0 now. It makes ZERO business sense and at this point just feels spiteful.

    (The desk lady was apologetic but claimed she could do nothing, and that her manager wouldn’t make an exception either. It’s late on a Sunday night so customer service line is closed. I get the general intent of the policy but the practical result here is one very upset customer who used to tell everyone how wonderful Southwest was… no more.)

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