Ticket Perks

Despite industry woes, airline workers still fly free

Southwest's Katie Coldwell logged 243,000 miles, 44 states, 2 countries

February 20, 2005|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

Some call it the perk that will never go away.

But airline workers who get free flight privileges as a benefit have found it harder recently to cash in and go anywhere.

Record low fares have filled airplanes with paying customers and left little room for employees who for years have been able to fly standby.

Further changes to the industry have meant deep cuts to pay and benefits at some troubled carriers that have left workers with less time and money for vacations. Younger workers who are likely to travel more have been laid off. And many workers have seen their jobs move hundreds of miles away to other cities, and now use their free flights more for commuting to work than for fun.

To be sure, the benefit is still one workers say they treasure. Low-cost and traditional airlines alike say they won't take it away.

Industry experts and airlines say the reason is that costs are minimal: an inflight soda, a bit of extra worker time, a bit of fuel. Even so, some airlines, such as United Airlines, are tacking on fees to cover the costs.

Southwest Airlines, the leading carrier at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, offers employees and their families free, unlimited travel and four "buddy" passes a year. The benefits are similar at US Airways and many others.

The tickets are standby only, although most airlines guarantee free seats for board members and executives. Except for international flights, most of the tickets are tax and fee free. Others have a flat $50-a-year charge or a fee based on mileage flown. It's generally extra for a seat in first class or on a competitor's plane.

Some airlines have left some longtime strings attached to the flights: At American Airlines, workers cannot wear blue jeans or open-toed shoes in the premium class seats, although jeans are allowed in coach.

In most cases, a more senior worker trumps a newer one for a seat on the same plane.

The perk is immediately bestowed on workers at some airlines and kicks in after six months at others. Families and buddies still enjoy the perk, as well as retirees with a certain number of years of service at many airlines.

Airlines say the benefit has been around for decades, although they can't or won't say if workers are flying more or less. Analysts say they don't track it because it doesn't cost much. And the Internal Revenue Service says airline workers don't have to pay federal taxes on the benefit, so it also doesn't know who uses it.

Some workers say they've figured out how to use it often.

Katie Coldwell, a 27-year-old Southwest Airlines worker, said it's the best thing about her job.

She has logged 243,000 miles in about five years. That's enough to fly around the world nearly 10 times.

"I'd been here a little over a year, and I told someone I'd never been to Las Vegas," she said. "She said I had to see the water show at the Bellagio. So, two other girlfriends and I hopped a plane Saturday afternoon, landing about 8 or 9 at night. We stayed up all night long and took the first flight home at 6 a.m. or so."

That was just the beginning for the Dallas-based communications employee. She has also been to New Orleans for lunch and home to Tulsa, Okla., for dinner. She's been to 44 states, and thanks to an agreement among the airlines for free and discounted fares, she has also been to Egypt and Australia.

She and others say they know the tricks to flying standby. Fly early and late, avoid Sundays and Fridays and carry on your bags. And, most importantly, have a backup plan.

AirTran Airways Chief Financial Officer Stan Gadek said he once gave his mother-in-law a free ticket, although she wasn't aware her seat wasn't guaranteed until she got to the airport.

"She made it on the plane, but there were a couple of phone calls to my wife," he said. "Now I buy her a ticket, which is OK. They're cheap."

Rayner Robinson, a 22-year-old AirTran customer service agent, always tries to get the first flight out.

She booked a ticket from BWI, where she's based, to Miami for a Mardi Gras-style party on Feb. 12. Robinson could see that only 43 of the 117 seats were filled on the 8:55 a.m. flight through Atlanta and thought she had a good chance of getting on the plane.

For fare-paying passengers, the price would have been $199 each way. Robinson was thrilled to save that money for other things, although she noted that paying customers get on the plane first.

She checked the Southwest schedule to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., as a backup. "I'll check every couple of days," she said.

Robinson has been signing herself up for a trip about once a month in the past 2 1/2 years, often traveling with co-workers or her family, who can also fly free.

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