One airline legend that stubbornly refuses to die is "cheap standby seats." As a reader recently questioned, "Are standby options common on most carriers? How do you go about trying to get on a flight at the last minute? Are they cheaper? Are some airlines better about them than others?" The short answers are "no," "by paying top dollar or buying through a discount agency," "no," and "no."
As a major factor in the airline marketplace, official cheap standby fares have been dead for more than 20 years—and they're unlikely to revive anytime soon. Although airlines still need to sell some unsold last-minute seats, they do it through back door outlets rather than as published fares.
When standby was king
Once upon a time, standby fares really were cheap, at least on a few routes. They achieved prominence when Freddie (later Sir Freddie) Laker started his "Skytrain" service from London to the U.S. Initial flights to New York began in September 1977, with other U.S. gateways added later. Laker's fare structure was simple: All flights were standby only—no reservations—and at the same $135 one-way fare (to/from New York) that was far lower than the best deals British Airways and Pan American had been offering.
Laker's Skytrain ushered in a golden age of cheap transatlantic travel. When PanAm and British Airways realized that the British and U.S. governments would approve Laker's operation, those lines and others immediately matched, for at least some of their economy seats. PanAm also cooked up an alternative approach, "budget," that allowed travelers to lock in reservations in advance, at the same prices, but only for a three-day flight period, with a final flight confirmed just a few days before departure. As a result of standby and budget, cheap travel between the U.S. and the U.K. became a reality, and much of it was at rock-bottom standby fares.
Subsequently, a few U.S. domestic airlines offered a few cheap standby fares on a few routes. I remember some limited late-night West Coast options on Hughes Airwest for a few years. But, for the most part, the only routes where standby was king were from the U.S. to London.
The end of the line
As a major low-fare pricing strategy, standby lost its momentum when Laker folded in 1982. The other lines were never fond of the idea, and without Laker's pressure, they soon abandoned standby pricing. However, since Laker had demonstrated a huge market for low-cost transatlantic service, the remaining lines kept low fares in their system, but they replaced standby (and budget) with the advance-purchase and minimum-stay requirements that became the hallmark of the cheapest airfares for the next decade.
For now, I know of no airlines in the developed world that offer cheap standby tickets. I wouldn't be surprised if you could bribe your way onto an about-to-depart flight in some developing countries, but not here.
In fact, major airlines no longer find it attractive to fill up lots of unsold seats by offering them at low prices. Instead, through the various techniques of "yield management," they can fill up almost all of the seats they want to fill in advance. They want to have a few seats available, just before departure, but to sell to business travelers at top dollar, not to leisure travelers looking for a good deal.