One of the most valuable things I learned from my Southwest Airlines internship is finessing my way through the complex work of free flying and travel. In the end, I also learned how to be flexible, open-minded, and approach each moment with positivity and a calm attitude because as the saying goes, everything happens for a reason.

Jez in Aruba.

Jez in Aruba.

Free Flights with a Twist

One of the best parts of interning at Southwest are the flight privileges. We are given unlimited free travel to anywhere the airline flies to, which includes a handful of international destinations like Belize, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, and Mexico.

In the past twelve weeks, I traveled to places like Aruba, Cancún, Costa Rica, and San Juan and even some cities I thought I would never visit like Amarillo, Lubbock, Little Rock, and Milwaukee.

However, all travel is in a space-available basis which means that we can only fly if there is a seat available for us. In the industry, we call it “standby” or “non-rev” travel, short for non-revenue. While it may sound simple and straight-forward, there are many elements that makes it more complex such as priority status, your time stamp, aircraft swap, delays and cancellations, and finally, customers who purchase last-minute tickets which decreases the amount of seats that are available.

The Standby List and Who Gets Priority

As interns, we are given an incredible amount of responsibility. The caliber of projects that we do are typically in line with what full-time employees are doing which gives us a dynamic and real-world exposure to the industry.

However, when we travel, interns fall below in priority against full-time employees. For example, if there are a total of seven employees listed on the standby list for a flight from Dallas to Los Angeles and five of those employees are full-time and two are interns, the interns would be listed as six and seven on the list.

Jez flies over Costa Rica.

Jez flies over Costa Rica.

How Do You Determine which Intern Gets Prioritized First?

Southwest Airlines does not assign seats and adapts an open-seating policy.

When you fly Southwest, you have to check-in starting 24 hours in advance to secure a favorable boarding position, which is categorized in three boarding groups: A, B, and C, and a corresponding number that goes from 1 to 60, and in some cases, up to 70 plus. This order then determines when you board the aircraft. The better your boarding position, the higher chance you have of snagging a preferred seat.

However, while we still strive to check in on the 24-hour mark, non-rev passengers do not get a boarding position during the process. Instead, we receive a time stamp that ranks us based on the exact time we clicked “check-in,” which in some cases when you’re competing with other interns, can be a difference of a few seconds. Whoever technically checked in first will be ranked higher on the list and therefore have a higher shot of being cleared for a flight.

How do you Get Cleared for a Flight?

With the standby list in order and if there are still seats available, gate agents then gradually clear the standby passengers one by one.

If there are seven people on the list and seven open seats, then more than likely, everyone is going to be cleared and handed a boarding pass. Unless, of course, that seat is taken by a paying customer or for other reasons, such as making space for pilots or flight attendants that are “dead heading,” which means they have to fly to that city to operate a flight.

Depending on seat availability, an agent could start clearing the list up to an hour before departure or as close as ten minutes before departure. Even if you’re 15 on the list and there are only 14 available seats, there is still a chance that you might make that flight because of last-minute cancelations and “no-shows,” or customers who fail to show up at the gate before the cut-off time for boarding, which is ten minutes before departure.

One of the best things I’ve learned this summer is to never lose hope until that flight literally leaves the gate. One of the best travel experiences I had this summer was somehow managing to squeeze in a group of nine interns to Puerto Rico when most of the five flights departing that day ended up with zero seats, which made our visit to the island so much more memorable because none of us thought we’d actually make it.

Jez flies over the Bahamas.

Jez flies over the Bahamas.

And It Gets More Complicated

Summer is one the busiest season to travel. Consequently, flights are typically fuller and it’s harder to get seats. This means that even though flying from Dallas to Orlando might look feasible one weekend, this could mean that you have to take an extra flight or two to get there.

For example, when I decided to travel to Aruba, I had to fly from Dallas to Tampa, sleep at the Tampa Airport overnight, before taking a 6:00 a.m. flight down to Fort Lauderdale and then finally flying on a two-hour flight from Fort Lauderdale to Aruba. The journey took about 15 hours.

We have to consistently check the “loads,” or the remaining seats available, for sale through our employee app. In some instances, flights can go from 20 seats to zero seats in less than 24 hours, so being flexible when it comes to packing is also key. You might set your heart to enjoy and cool down in 60-degree San Francisco but might end up in 110-degree El Paso.

But not knowing where you’re exactly going to end up in until that plane literally pushes back from the gate and takes off is half the fun. One of the best things to do is simply show up at the airport, look at the departures board, and decide on the spot where and when you want to go.

When Things Go South (Literally)

During the second weekend of July, I was trying to fly back from Chicago to Dallas. I was scheduled to fly back on a 2:00 p.m. flight. But poor weather in the morning resulted in several cancelations, which meant that the afternoon flights eventually filled up.

I was able to quickly figure out an exit strategy through Nashville and had no trouble getting on the flight from Chicago. However, as I landed in Nashville, the flight to Dallas went down to one seat left and I was second on the list. Despite my optimism, the first person on the list showed up at the gate and took the last remaining seat for the flight. I was automatically listed for the following flight, which as luck would have it, also filled up.

At this point, there was one remaining flight back to Dallas which was scheduled two hours later and had five seats left. At that point, I was extremely frustrated and simply wanted to get back to Dallas.

Everything Happens for a Reason

Feeling defeated, I sat down next to this visibly frustrated but friendly woman who offered to share her snack. She told me that her earlier flight had been canceled due to weather and she was left with five minutes to make her connection to Midland, Texas. I assured her that most flights usually get in a few minutes ahead of schedule and offered to check our internal system to review alternative flights for her should she end up missing her connecting flight.

She then thanked me profusely and shared how Southwest has been part of her family. Her daughter was diagnosed with a serious bone marrow disease that usually leads to amputation. This  prompted them to fly from Midland to Dallas for surgery regularly. This happened for several years and through that, they met a gate agent in Midland who went out of his way to build a customized leg rest for her daughter so she can comfortably lay her leg every time they flew up to Dallas for surgery.

By some miracle, her daughter was eventually cured from the disease. After a couple of years and was able to walk with her own two legs, despite all the odds. The daughter was so inspired by her survival story that she went on to become a doctor specialized in providing prosthetic limbs for people who suffer from the same disease.

The woman told me that she has been looking to contact the Midland gate agent for several months now because her daughter is getting married in Nashville this summer. When I heard that, I enthusiastically told her that as a Southwest employee, I was able to search up someone’s email by first and last name. Long story short, the woman and the gate agent were finally reconnected and she was able to send him a wedding invitation to Nashville.

I eventually made the last flight back to Dallas and sat next to her on our quick one-hour flight back to Texas. She told me that she was glad she got her flight canceled earlier and I told her the same thing: that there was a reason why I missed three flights. If I had not miss my flights , I would not have met the woman. And I would not have the opportunity to help her reconnect with the gate agent for what is perhaps a great ending to a life-long relationship with her family and Southwest Airlines.

It was a profoundly valuable lesson on approaching life with an open mind and a calm attitude. As the saying goes, everything does happen for a reason.

Jez, the friend he met in Nashville, and a fellow intern.

Jez, the friend he met in Nashville, and a fellow intern.