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I've checked into a flight this morning with Delta, only to see a dreaded "Seat At Gate" message on my boarding pass. I am aware that airlines routinely overbook their flights, so normally I'd expect that 3-4 passengers would be put on standby when checking in. However when I arrived to the airport, the overhead monitors showed that a total of 15 passengers were put on the "awaiting seat assignment" list. In the end I was assigned a seat at the gate and as far as I could tell no one was bumped against their will.

Why would the airline put so many people on standby at once? Do they really overbook short haul planes by 15 seats or so?

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    Airlines have incredible revenue management analysis tools, they know very well how many no-shows they will typically get on a given route at any given moment and thus know how many seats they can overbook with minimal risk. – Moo Sep 22 at 22:24
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    Another possibility is a last-minute aircraft switch, possibly for technical reasons or to avoid cascading delays. – Relaxed Sep 22 at 22:56
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    Another possibility: A backlog of passengers because of technical problems / strike / ... from the previous day(s). I don't follow airport operations unless I have a flight coming up, so I don't know if any of this applies to the current situation, but I observed this once a few years back. – Sabine Sep 23 at 9:37
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    @JLewis definitely not for a domestic flight within the West coast of the US :) – JonathanReez Supports Monica Sep 23 at 16:06
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    Getting your seat assigned at the gate is NOT the same thing as actually being on standby. – MonkeyZeus Sep 23 at 17:32
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For the specific case of Delta, there are a few things going on here (and, for what it's worth, I frequently fly Delta and have Platinum Medallion status with them.)

First of all, this is not the upgrade list that another answer mentions, nor does it usually have anything to do with overbooking or irregular operations (equipment change, cancellations, etc.) There is indeed a waitlist for upgrades to Comfort+ or First Class, but it's a separate list from the "awaiting seat assignments"/standby list. Upgrade waitlisted passengers typically do have a seat assignment, but are just hoping for a better one and will not appear on the standby/awaiting seat assignment list.

There are multiple categories of people who may be awaiting seat assignments at the gate on a Delta flight:

Frequent Flyers on Same-Day Standby

One of the most common categories of people on the "Awaiting Seat Assignment"/Standby list are frequent flyers using Same-Day Standby.

People who fly Delta frequently enough to earn Gold, Platinum, or Diamond Medallion frequent flyer status have same-day confirmed and same-day standby fees waived. With this benefit, a business traveler who, for example, finishes a meeting early may choose to join the same-day standby list for an earlier flight than the one they are booked on, as long as it's on the same day. This allows them to get home sooner if they finished their business earlier than anticipated. This benefit is used very frequently by business travelers and will account for quite a lot of the people on the standby list on most Delta flights.

Anyone can do Same-Day Standby (or Same-Day Confirmed) flight changes, but it's mostly used by frequent flyers who get it for free. It costs $75 if you don't have at least Gold Medallion status. Frequent flyers also have a higher priority on the standby waitlist.

Passengers booked in Basic Economy

Passengers booked in Basic Economy class are confirmed on a flight, but may not receive their seat assignment until they get to the gate on heavily-booked flights. They generally will get a seat, but might not have a particular seat assignment until shortly before boarding.

Non-Revenue Passengers

Another common category of people traveling on Standby who will appear on this list are non-revenue passengers, that is, airline employees and/or their friends and family. Most airlines allow their employees to standby for empty seats on just about any of their flights for little or no cost, so, as you can imagine, this benefit is used frequently. They will (at least in theory) clear after all of the passengers booked on normal tickets and after frequent flyers on Same-Day Standby.

Overbooking

This is not as common as any of the categories listed above, but overbooking is another way for passengers to end up on this list. However, they definitely do not overbook by 15 passengers. More than likely, your flight was not overbooked at all and this was not a factor.

Irregular Operations (IRROPS)

IRROPS are when flights are cancelled, downgauged, delayed, etc. due to unforeseen circumstances, such as weather, air traffic delays, maintenance problems, crew out-of-position, etc. In these cases, passengers may need to be rebooked standby on another flight if their flight is cancelled, excessively delayed, or downgauged to a smaller aircraft. Like overbooking, this is a far less common reason than the first three (on Delta, at least,) but it does happen sometimes on all airlines. This was most likely not a factor at all on your particular flight, but it does happen from time to time, especially when there are major weather problems.

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They may have been non-revenue travelers. As a job perk, airlines commonly allow their own employees to travel for free or at nominal cost (e.g. paying only the taxes), even for personal travel. This privilege may also be extended to the employee's family or friends accompanying them, or to employees of other airlines. But all such travel will typically be standby, so that it does not displace paying customers.

If so, then it's not overbooking, because those people were never promised a seat in the first place. They wait until the last minute, and if seats are still available, they get to board. If not, they can try again on another flight, or maybe give up and go home. They knew all along this was part of the deal. If they really had to get there, they could pay full price for a ticket like everyone else.

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    Note that the question has been updated to change Standby to Waiting for Seat, which makes this answer incorrect... (Even though it was correct before the edit!) – Doc Sep 23 at 5:16
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    @Doc in which case the question should be rolled back. – Notts90 Sep 23 at 7:32
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    "But all such travel will typically be standby, so that it does not displace paying customers." - well, not always. there has been a case when an already boarded and seated passenger (who, after having a seat assigned and already boarded would not be eligible to "overbooking"-related bouncing, which happens at the gate before boarding) was physically assaulted and dragged off the plane to allow an employee to take his seat. – vsz Sep 23 at 10:12
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    @vsz: Not that it justifies anything, but the Dao case wasn't an instance of non-revenue travel, but rather of "deadheading". The employees weren't using their perk for free personal travel; they were traveling as part of their airline duties, on their employer's orders. Such travel is usually "space positive" which is the opposite of standby - they have higher priority than all paying customers. So that case isn't really relevant to what I'm talking about here. – Nate Eldredge Sep 23 at 12:19
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    @NateEldredge Yes, exactly. Deadheading crew are very high priority. When a flight is full, it's a choice between denying boarding to one or a few passengers to board the crew instead or cancelling an entire flight and stranding a whole plane-load of passengers (or more,) due to having no crew to operate the flight. They probably couldn't have just driven the crew to the destination in that case, as they wouldn't have arrived soon enough to meet the mandatory rest requirements before the flight they were presumably being positioned to operate the next morning. – reirab Sep 23 at 18:29
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Delta domestic flights generally have 3 classes of service - Economy, Economy Comfort and First class.

Passengers with Frequently Flyer "status" are given complimentary upgrades between these cabins, so someone that booked Economy might be upgraded to either First or Economy Comfort. These upgrades sometimes happen in advance, but frequently also happen at the gate.

Based on what you've said, there were 15 people - most likely all of them in Economy - waiting for seats. A small number of these might have been due to the airline "overselling" the flight, but the majority were likely due to free seats being available in First and Economy Comfort, and passengers not having been upgraded to them yet.

Before boarding, the gate staff will "clear" upgrades, moving passengers from Economy Comfort to First, and from Economy to either Economy Comfort or First, in doing so freeing seats in economy for passengers like yourself.

If the flight was oversold then they will attempt to find passengers who are booked on the flight but who will clearly not make their connection (eg, their inbound flight is delayed until after this flight is due to depart), and then allocate those seats as required.

If there are still people without seats they will follow their standard procedure for an oversold flight, which depending on the exact situation could involve asking for 'volunteers' to take a later flight (in return for compensation), or selecting passengers to "Deny Boarding" - although normally this would only happen very close to departure to see if there are any other passengers who fail to show for the flight.

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    Another possibility is that the planned aircraft had an issue and the replacement available had a dozen fewer seats. – ratchet freak Sep 23 at 11:06
  • Beyond free upgrades for frequent fliers, another source of upgrades is passengers who pay for an upgrade upon check-in – Kevin Troy Sep 23 at 14:33
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Airlines know very well how many non-shows they have on average for a specific flight, and how many non-revenue passengers.

Using those numbers they can predict quite accurately how many passengers they can safely overbook and put on standby and still not have to leave any paying customers stranded.

Most extreme example I ever had of that was a 747 from Curacao to Amsterdam. That leg was on average 50% overbooked, as it was this time. They still did not have to leave anyone behind, and the aircraft wasn't quite full (but close) on departure. The number of no-shows was that high. On that particular leg at the time this was in large part because of the extremely high number of drugs couriers that use the route. Many get cold feet at the last moment and abandon their journey, more get caught by immigration and customs and are offloaded.

KLM took no great risk when overbooking the flight by 50%, it was routine at the time for that leg (don't know what the numbers are now, probably lower as it's no longer a direct flight and therefore less attractive to drugs couriers, especially those ingesting capsules).

  • KL 736 is still a direct flight with the same old 747 =). I recently flew that leg and it's not very comfortable. – Daan van Hoek Sep 23 at 6:26
  • @DaanvanHoek oh, they changed it again? Last I checked they now made a stop at Aruba. And no, it's not the same old 747. It was a -300M when I flew, they're long gone. – jwenting Sep 23 at 6:37
  • That actually must be some time ago. Now it is a 747-400 with new business class, which doesn't help you in economy, that looks and feels the same as back in 2000. Didn't know that the routed it through Aruba for some time. – Daan van Hoek Sep 23 at 7:48
  • @DaanvanHoek I flew Amsterdam-Bonaire-Curacao-Amsterdam on a -300M back in 2002 (or maybe it was 2001). – jwenting Sep 23 at 8:28
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Among other reasons, airlines will refrain from assigning you a seat when all of the remaining unassigned seats are "premium" of any sort - extra leg room, exit row, etc. This is because they're hoping to sell your seat as an upgrade to someone else who's willing to pay for it while waiting at the gate. See my previous answer to a similar question:

Flying AA domestic recently, I was unable to select a seat online without paying extra, and did not receive a proper boarding pass but a "see attendant at gate" note when I checked in at the self-check-in station at the airport. I was worried I'd been bumped, but when I got to the gate they asked me if I was able and willing to assist in the event of an emergency. :-) :-) :-)

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    This has been the most common reason in my travel experience. I actually get a little excited when I see "seat at gate" because it almost always means I'm about to get a free upgrade of some kind, even if minor. – dwizum Sep 23 at 19:43
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(Question originally stated he was on the "Standby" list, but was since changed to "Awaiting Seats" list which makes this answer wrong - but I'm going to leave it for posterity... This answer does NOT answer the question as edited)

You appear to be confusing two different concepts.

You were NOT on standby. You had a confirmed reservation, and your name should not have been shown on the "standby" list. (Some airlines have a separate "awaiting seat allocation" list, but this is separate to the standby list).

However at the time you checked in, they did not have a free physical seat to allocate to you. This could have been due to an oversold situation as you suggested, or it could be simply that they were planning to upgrade one or more other people from Economy to Economy Comfort or First Class, thus freeing a seat for you in economy.

The reason people were on the standby list is because they put themselves on it! There's a number of reasons people could be on the standby list, but the most common are :

  • People who are currently booked on a later flight, but who are looking to get on an earlier flight if there are seats available
  • Airline staff (or potentially their family/friends) travelling as NRSA (Non-Revenue Space Available) passengers who will be able to get on the flight only if there are seats available.
  • People who have purchased "standby" tickets. In general these don't exist on most airlines any more - and I'm fairly sure Delta do not do them.

At times it's possible to see dozens of people on a standby list - especially when there have been flight cancellations/delays/etc. For example, storms in Texas this week caused hundreds of flights in/out of the Houston area to be cancelled. As a result the standby list on my flight from Austin to San Francisco was over 100 people long - all people who would have been rebooked on later flights (potentially the next day) trying to get on something earlier.

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The passengers may have been rebooked onto your flight due to a delay or cancellation of their original flight.

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