BOSTON — Thr plane from Chicago to Boston wasn't scheduled to leave until 5:45 p.m. But when the bus arrived early at O'Hare, I decided to catch the 4:45 flight. A reservation agent had said earlier that there should be "no problem" going standby.
The gate agent didn't agree. She pointed out that this was a "time-specific" fare, requiring a $70 payment for standby.
Time-specific? Seventy dollars for same-day standby, which has traditionally been free? During many trips on this route in recent months, including a standby flight or two, no one had ever used the phrase "time-specific."
But the gate agent held her ground. The couple seated next to me on the plane had also tried to stand by at 4:45, with the same result: Pay up or don't go.
These days a traveler sometimes needs a PhD - Passenger Hardiness Degree - to navigate the shoals of carriers' ever-changing rules and avoid being cast adrift in a sea of fine print at the bottom of their ads. Those three little words, "Some restrictions apply," can confuse even the savviest travelers.
As the gate agent explained, less-expensive, time-specific fares enable major carriers to compete with smaller rivals flying at the same time. In exchange for a cheaper ticket, a traveler must stay within what one reservation agent calls "certain little time windows" - such as between 6:45 and 8:15 a.m.
It's all part of a larger pricing system known as yield management, in which carriers change fares, up or down, on the basis of their anticipated demand for seats. Airlines make 200,000 pricing changes a day, according to ABC News. Even Amtrak now relies on fluid pricing.
Fair enough. Discounted tickets are a boon to millions of travelers who are able to plan ahead, stay over a weekend night, and conform to tight restrictions. By contrast, last-minute business travelers must pay increasingly exorbitant fares. But price is only half the equation for corporate success. Service still counts too.
Perhaps Arthur Martinez, chief executive of Sears, Roebuck, has the best philosophy. Acknowledging the need for improvements in his own company, he admits the need to "revisit and intensify the theme of our customer being the center of our universe."
That attitude is just as valid for the highly competitive airline industry, which at the moment is enjoying record levels of passenger traffic.
Standby, on a first-come, first-serve basis, has been one of the few remaining perks for passengers traveling on discounted tickets. It's an acknowledgment that people's schedules are unpredictable and that plans can change. It's a goodwill gesture, a way to satisfy a few customers when a plane would otherwise take off with empty seats.
Carriers are doing many things right. Some have even reinstated full meals on certain flights, a quiet acknowledgment that a half-ounce foil packet of peanuts doesn't count as a dinner entree. But at the very least, when it comes to ticketing, airlines need to do a better job of informing customers - and even their own agents - about rules. In random calls to two major airlines, asking about standby policies, I found contradictory explanations.
Easiest of all would be a less rigid approach: If a passenger stays within the rules on an outbound flight and wants to return on a same-day standby when seats are available, whatever the price of the ticket, an agent could simply smile, produce a new boarding pass, and say, "Welcome aboard."
After all, every satisfied passenger on the plane - right there at the center of an airline's universe - may be worth two potential customers far away.