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.