Are There Really A Million Non-Revs?

One of the biggest perks the airlines advertise to attract employees is the ability to fly for free.  That’s where the term “non-revenue” flyer comes in (or Non-Rev for short).  Generally, if you’re an airline employee (and, in most cases, a retiree) you can fly anywhere the airline is going.  The catch?  There has to be an empty seat.  In an age where planes are more full than at any time I can recall, that can be a daunting task.

And, as it turns out, non-revs have more competition than I would have guess.  According to this article, there are over a million people who are eligible for free travel amongst the major US carriers:

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.

Wait, really?  AA has 3/4 of a million non-revs?  I did some hunting to see if I could find an official statement from AA on this.  The closest I came is an article written by Susan Carey at the Wall Street Journal.  Written in January, this is what she had to say on the subject:

American Airlines estimates that its American and US Airways employees and retirees and their families and friends alone flew on 5.3 million flight segments in the first 11 months of last year. The combined company has about 100,000 employees but a total of about 700,000 people have direct access to the program once retirees and employees’ families are counted. On top of that there are more than 800,000 potential buddy-pass riders.

I’m still marveling at the fact that American Airlines has a 7:1 ratio of non-employee versus employees eligible for free travel.  I recall the nasty dispute between retirees and the management of AA about the change in their priority for flying, but I never internalized the number.

According to the article, Southwest Airlines has a much smaller number of non-revs:

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.

Given that they were a much smaller airline over the past few decades, it’s not surprising to see their number much lower even though they’ve grown significantly as an airline, with about half as many employees as American.

I’ve rarely traveled as a non-rev, but everything I’ve heard is that it can be quite the slog, especially given the loads.  Waiting until the last-minute to find out if you can board, and potentially having to change your destination when you realize you just can’t get there from here, must be very frustrating.  Think about trying to do that around a holiday when you also may need a hotel when you land at some of the busiest times of the year.

Flying for free is a benefit of working for the airlines, and a pretty nice one at that.  But, it was certainly a much better benefit when planes left the gate with lots of empty seats.  Nowadays, it’s definitely more of a lottery ticket.

18 Comments

  1. As a non-rev myself I can tell you that in my opinion – it’s still worth it. If your smart about it, you can usually get on flights with not so much hassle. In all my flying history – only once I wasn’t able to get to where I was going.

    1. Dude26, thanks for weighing in. I’ve only spoken with a handful of non-revs who mostly complain.:)
      Just curious where you sit in the priority list for non-revs (ie employee vs retiree)? Understand if you can’t be specific, feel free to anonymize as necessary, but any info you’re willing to share.

      1. I’m an active employee. Used to work for one of the large legacy airlines. Now, working for a non-U.S airline. Priority protocols are very different on each airline, but in general I really do well usually as a non-rev. At both airlines I’ve been working for, active employees are the given the highest priority. However, inside that same tier, the priority is determined differently: at my previous airline, it was who checked in first. In my current airline, it’s by seniority.
        For me it works 99% of the time and it’s worth it. I mean, going LAX-SYD in F for like a 100$ each way is a bargain. You just have to be cleaver in your choice of dates / days of the week / hours to fly. Plus, don’t forget almost all non-rev’s have also stand by ZED tickets (flying cheaply on other airlines).

        1. Dude26, thanks for sharing all the info. LAX-SYD for $100 is a pretty crazy deal, for sure. And, the possibility of stand-by on other airlines is a nice plus. Doesn’t surprise me that the priority levels are different for different airlines. There are a lot of ways to skin that cat. Do you normally just wing it for hotels when you travel as a non-rev?

          1. Hotel bookings is what your blog (and I have to mention Gary’s as well) are very helpful to me! I have status with several chains. I usually book a refundable rate for the day of travel, and I make sure that I can cancel it by the same day of arrival. That way, if I don’t make it to my destination, I can just cancel online with no hassle. Never had a problem with hotels. It does help that I book quite a bit a crew rate and those are usually refundable until the afternoon of day of check in. Amazingly, I must tell you, that 90% of my stays on a crew rate I still get elite status acknowledgement and all the perks. On some chains I do get the points as well (even on an air crew rate).

          2. Dude26, really interesting to hear that you get elite status on crew rates. We’ll keep that one quiet! I was going to ask how you felt about the hotels pushing out the cancellation policies and how that impacted your situation. But, if crew rates can cancel until that afternoon that certainly adds a great deal of flexibility. Which chains do you prefer for your travel?

  2. Traveling as a nonrev is still a great benefit, especially if you are entitled to nonrev on premium cabins, as many of us are. However, it is necessary to choose your flight according to the circumstances. Traveling through the holiday season is basically a no-go for example, especially with family. Not only paying customers can take away your seat, it can also be the higher seniority or priority code for a fellow nonrev pax and I’ve seen flights with over 30 of them listed. And don’t forget about cargo, there’s a good chance to be left at the gate because of exceeding takeoff weight too. Overall, nonreving just needs a higher amount of planning, maximum flexibility, good humor, and a calm mind.

    1. #nonrevlife, great perspective! I would imagine equal parts planning and humor are needed. Any other feedback you can provide as to where you sit on priority lists, successes or failures you’ve had?

      1. I have been mostly successful with my nonrev travels, probably due to the fact that I choose my departure date and route largely depending on the expected load. If you are in the industry, you also know the market a bit, for example where to expect short-term bookings or generally high loads.

          1. I agree that travelling during holidays in a non-starter. I admit that if I were married with a family it would be tougher for sure, as i’d be dependent on school holidays etc.

  3. I am a nonrev retiree with one of the legacy airlines so I am pretty low on the priority list. I took a buy out/early retirement and no longer work, however my husband does and we still have to work around my kids’ school schedule. So I don’t have the flexibility that other retirees may have.
    However in my 20 year career and my 8 year retirement status, there has only been 3 times that I have not gotten on my preferred flight. And we travel frequently – usually 2-3 times internationally per year and at least 5-8 times domestically. We do have to be flexible like waking up early at LHR and deciding to take the later flight to JFK instead of the earliest one after checking the loads. And we do usually get first or business internationally – even in the summer. Domestically it is a bit more difficult to get in first but it still happens about 30-40% of our travel.
    I do collect miles for the some holiday periods when we are on a high schedule and need to book specific flights. And I am big into the hotel points scene.
    Sorry I have to be so vague with details but I have to abide by my company policy. I just had to respond when I read that you only hear people complain about it. No complaints here!

    1. Another Non-Rev, thanks for all the info. It makes sense to hold on to some points for travel during peak times. Is there a surcharge to fly in F? Understand if you can’t answer, just curious how airlines handle having enough meals. I’ve been denied boarding as a standby for a J seat because the airline didn’t have a J meal for me.

      1. Another non-revver here, been flying non-rev all my life. I’m currently ‘retired’ at a young age but hope to be active again someday. Check my website link for my nonrev flying – 99% of those are on staff travel.

        Yes, premium cabins can cost more. AA for example have a surcharge, BA does a multiple of the fare. On BA at least, if there isn’t enough food, you get served last with what’s left. If all commercial pax eat, you might get only some salad or something from economy, but BA doesn’t deny the seat to non-revs – just the food if necessary.

        Another thing to add to your numbers – alliance partners and other airlines – most airlines allow non-rev travel on others, at least on alliance partners. I’ve flown non-rev on BA, AA, QF, QR, NZ, TW, US, B6, DL, SA, KL, VS, and BD. Not knowing whether you’ll get a business class seat or a jump seat is part of the fun!

      2. My airline does not charge for domestic travel (first or coach). There are some taxes to pay for international travel – but it is the same for first, business and coach. We must “list” for the flight we wish to take do the airline knows how many meals will be needed. I’ve never had a meal shortage experience, but we are happy to let the revenue passengers have first choice of meal choices in premium classes.

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