The skies are getting less friendly for “buddy passes” and other airline employee travel perks.
Nearly free standby travel programs have long been a benefit of working for airlines. Millions of people fly every year under these programs, which extend to current employees and their immediate families as well as airline retirees and their families. The programs also make available inexpensive “buddy passes” that employees and retirees can dole out to friends.
Abuse of the programs, however, has cost the carriers money and has even facilitated criminal activity, and some big airlines are starting to crack down.
Both Delta Air Lines Inc. and United Continental Holdings Inc. warned their employees last year that workers caught abusing the privileges could face termination. United’s memo, last month, said that within the past year more than 100 people were fired “due to fraudulent activity related to buddy passes,” primarily for overseas travel.
The issue of buddy passes gained fresh attention when a former Delta baggage handler was arraigned last month in New York on charges that he smuggled guns from Atlanta to New York on Delta flights that he took using buddy passes supplied by his mother, a retired Delta gate agent.
PHOTO: OTTO STEININGER
The former baggage handler, Mark Henry, was fired in 2010 for abusing the travel-pass program, according to law-enforcement officials. Prosecutors allege that Mr. Henry flew from Atlanta to New York 17 times in 2014, often toting firearms—sometimes loaded—in his carry-on luggage.
Mr. Henry worked with an active Delta employee—now terminated—who used his airport credentials to smuggle the weapons into the terminal in Atlanta, for handoff to Mr. Henry before he boarded, prosecutors say.
Mr. Henry, 45, was charged in a 591-count indictment including felony offenses of criminal possession and sale of firearms.
He pleaded not guilty, according to his attorney, Terence Sweeney.
Delta last month said it permanently revoked the travel privileges of Mr. Henry’s mother, whom the airline wouldn’t identify.
Airlines give employees, retirees, their families and friends the chance to fly for free or at reduced rates if they stand by and seats are open. The boarding priority pecking order is complex, as shown in general outline by United Airlines’ typical rules:
FIRST PRIORITY: Active and retired workers and eligible family members with special “vacation passes” that boost their boarding priority go first, based on their seniority
SECOND: Active workers and their families on “personal passes” board next, again by seniority
THIRD: Retirees and families with personal passes go after active workers, by seniority
FOURTH: Other airlines’ workers traveling on company business can board next
FIFTH:United suppliers go after that
SIXTH: Other airlines’ workers traveling on reduced-price tickets
SEVENTH: Buddy passes given out to extended family members of employees
LAST TO BOARD: Buddy passes given out to friends
The airline said the alleged gun plot hasn’t prompted new changes to its buddy-pass program because anyone who uses such a pass is required to go through a Transportation Security Administration screening checkpoint.
Most misuses of the buddy passes are less dramatic. Delta and United, in their memos last year, referenced “pass travel brokers” who run underground businesses illegally selling the passes, employees who fraudulently designate individuals as eligible family members, and those who use the privileges for themselves or family members to travel for other jobs or side businesses, which is prohibited.
Delta has posted responses on Craigslist and other online classified-ad websites telling potential shoppers that the “discounted tickets” being offered aren’t for confirmed seats and flout the rules of its employee-travel program. A spokesman said the airline has disciplined or fired some of the ticket sellers, but declined to say how many employees were caught trying to make money off their travel privileges.
American Airlines Group Inc., the world’s largest airline by traffic, last September revised its flight-perk policies to meld those of its American and US Airways units. Now, American retirees seeking a free seat have to wait behind active employees. Previously, both groups got the same crack at any empty seats, with check-in time acting as the determining factor. US Airways workers lost their boarding priority based on seniority, with active employees having first dibs.
A group of retired American flight attendants sued the company in a state court in Chicago, seeking class-action status for breach of contract for putting retirees behind at least 500,000 current employees and their families in landing free seats.
American said it doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
Airlines say they must manage the huge, complex programs closely to ensure they aren’t giving away the store or displacing paying passengers. U.S. airlines, after years of losses and restructuring, have grown increasingly profitable in recent years, in part by becoming much more rigorous about how they balance costs and revenues. In industry lingo, flying standby with little or no charge is called “non-rev travel,” for non-revenue.
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.
United this month began requiring buddy-pass riders outside the continental U.S. to be accompanied by an employee or designate. American recently reduced the number of one-way buddy passes it give retirees to eight from 24, but parents and companion trips no longer come out of this bank. Active employees get 16 such passes.
Despite the tighter reins on such programs, many airline employees and retirees value the arrangements.
“You fly for free if there’s an empty seat, but there are no guarantees,” said Pat Friend, a retired 42-year United attendant and former union leader. On a trip last month from Newark, N.J., to Tulsa, Ms. Friend and her sister stood by for seven flights before finally getting on. But she is philosophical. “I’m retired. I can go when I want to go and stay as long as I want.”
Ms. Friend said she rarely used buddy passes while she was eligible to receive them as an active employee. “I didn’t know what they were going to do,” she said of potential recipients. “Will they screw things up and ruin your privileges?”
Indeed, the airlines encourage their employees to educate buddies about good behavior, and in some cases even spell out do’s and don’ts for such travelers. The latest instructions from US Airways include dress-code guidelines, which deem as unacceptable clothing that is “torn, faded, soiled, wrinkled, cut-off, has ragged edges or holes; clothing with offensive graphics or terminology; and provocative or revealing clothing such as micro/mini-skirts, bare midriff, halter, tank, tube or bra tops.”
The instructions also require that buddies “maintain a polite, cooperative demeanor during travel and refrain from discussing…the fact that you are flying at a reduced fare with other passengers.”