Non-revenue travelers use last-minute, leftover seats on flights around the U.S. and abroad.

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At the end of her Caribbean honeymoon, Sara Nelson planned a two-day jaunt — all the way to London. But the flight attendant and her husband ended up in Paris, opting for sightseeing instead of theater. It’s just part of the surprising life as a “non-revenue” traveler, a little-noticed tribe of more than a million current U.S. airline employees, retirees, and their loved ones who get access to free flights all over the world.

There’s a catch to this globe-trotting free-for-all. Trips made by non-rev passengers are dictated entirely by the availability of leftover seats at the time of travel. “Flight attendants recognize that when they’re planning their vacations, they’ve got to be flexible because they may or may not get there,” says Nelson, who works for United Airlines and serves as international president of the Association of Flight Attendants- CWA, which represents about 50,000 attendants. Her paramount rule: “Have a backup in mind. It’s just something you do.”

These “free” seats to Paris or Cancún can enable a lifestyle of wanderlust — sometimes lodged in first-class seats, with a nominal fee — for workers who are far from wealthy jet- setters. Lucky non-rev passengers can set out on a trip on the spur of the moment, a choice that carries exorbitant costs for normal travelers. “It’s nice to just jump on a flight and go to the West Coast,” says Jim Record, a retired Northwest Airlines pilot who lives in Long Island, N.Y. “Let’s face it — that’s not bad.”

For decades, the chance to fly in an empty seat has served as a powerful recruitment and retention tool for U.S. carriers. Yet airline employees tend to focus on the grubby, chaotic realities of their perk rather than the jealousy-inducing glamour.  

The world’s largest carrier, American Airlines, counts 750,000 people eligible to fly for free. That number includes not just current employees and their spouses, children, and parents but a quarter-million retirees, a group enraged by changes to the fringe benefit following American’s 2013 merger with US Airways. About two dozen retirees have sued American for breach of contract and deceptive business practices, and the plaintiffs are now seeking class-action status that would cover more than 20,000 retired American flight attendants. Angry retirees have taken to protesting at the airline’s annual shareholder meeting. 

The biggest change was to split American workers and retirees into separate groups for seat priority, as other U.S. carriers do, while creating a new priority category for retirees, called D2R. The merged airline scrapped a seniority system that US Airways had used to allot seats while cutting the number of free, one-way “buddy passes” that retirees receive each year, from two dozen to eight. Current workers receive 16 of these guest tickets per year. Taken together, the retirees’ lawsuit alleges, these changes place them “behind at least 500,000 people, including current employees and their spouses/domestic partners/registered companions and eligible children.”

American executives say that on most flights, all non- revenue travelers tend to get a seat — or none do. Retirees manage to board 76 percent of the time when they try, according to American, slightly ahead of current employees, at 74 percent.

The policy change was significant for “the legacy American side” of the company, says Elise Eberwein, the American executive vice president who oversaw the blending of American and US Airways’ travel policies and became the target of retiree ire. The revamped non-rev system followed years financial strain before American filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in late 2011 — a process that damaged insurance and pension plans for current and former workers. Changes in the post-merger freebie program were “the straw that broke the camel’s back, I think, as far as the emotional aspect of it,” says Eberwein, a former TWA flight attendant.

“The general opinion today of employees is that you’re not going to get on an airplane.” 

Southwest Airlines, which has more than 230,000 eligible non-rev travelers, boards active employees first, followed by family members of employees and then retirees. Within those groups, the company follows a “first-come, first-served” system, says Southwest spokeswoman Katie Coldwell. Retirees enjoy lifetime travel privileges if they have worked for at least 10 years and if, when they retire, their age and years of service combine to at least 65. 

Delta and United declined to say how many people receive travel benefits; combined, those airlines have about 165,000 employees.  

The next time you see a long standby list on a video screen by the gate, you’ll have some idea of how much flexibility an airline worker must apply to the process of finding flights with an empty seat — almost always one in the middle. First go ordinary passengers. Then gate agents turn to non-rev travelers, including employees of other airlines who are typically eligible under reciprocal flight benefits. Among this group are those wielding a buddy pass, a free flight opportunity airlines give employees to hand out to friends or family. It’s a chance — not a guarantee — to occupy an unsold seat to some fabulous destination.

A buddy pass puts you very low in the priority queue. “I wouldn’t give them to anybody unless I was trying to torture them,” says Uma Arunachalam, a veteran flight attendant for American. 

The chance to fly for free is still a powerful draw to work for an airline, but the nature of the benefit is changing with steeper passenger loads that are running about 84 percent across U.S. airlines, according to federal data. Following the 2008 recession, airlines reorganized in bankruptcy, merged, and recorded soaring profits by keeping seat supply in very close proximity to traveler demand. All 10 of the highest load factors have come after the 2008 recession, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics noted in its recent release of March traffic data.

Load factors on domestic flights are even higher. In June, for instance, Delta, United, and American all notched rates above 87 percent — making it trickier for non-rev travelers to snag unsold seats.

The general opinion today of employees is that you’re not going to get on an airplane,” says Nelson, the longtime United flight attendant. Back in the 1990s, airline workers could show up at the airport with a relatively good idea as to which flights would yield a freebie seat. “It was almost a certainty that you were going to get on the plane, and it was also usually certain that you’d sit in first class,” she says.

Seat scarcity is compounded because many non-revvers aren’t headed to a Hawaiian beach but just trying to get to work. Following the wave of mergers, airlines have closed or reduced staff bases in many cities. This means that many employees are forced to commute to the job, even if it involves cross-country flights. Today, Nelson says, about half of U.S. flight crews commute to work, with the number even higher at bases in expensive cities such as New York and San Francisco. 

Arunachalam, the American attendant, is one of the serious ones. She flies non-rev about once per month, indulging her love for exploration and surprising her San Francisco-based co-workers with the frequency and length of her jaunts. “I think it’s not that [airline employees] don’t like to travel, I  think it just makes them nervous to not be able to predict what’s going to happen,” she says, shortly after a trip to Morocco. The vagaries of non-revving don’t bother her. She generally travels solo or with her boyfriend, avoiding peak times at which a seat probably won’t be available.

“I guess I take a Zen Buddhism approach to it,” Arunachalam says. “If I can’t go to Rome, then I’ll just get to Paris and find a flight from there.” 

The jammed planes and the travails of non-rev travel are not the only reasons they don’t jet off to exotic locales as much as they might. “The last thing they want to do when they have a day off is get on an airplane and go somewhere,” says Nelson. It’s a bit like hanging out in your office on the weekend.