Galley Gossip: Nonrevs, deadheads & commuters in (and out) of uniform

Wanna know the best way to change clothes on an airplane? I bet you do. I’ll get to that in a moment. (Or you can just scroll down to the bottom of this post.) Now that I’ve got your attention…

Have you ever seen a uniformed crew member sitting on the jumpseat and flipping through magazines? Or even worse, watching a movie? Don’t be too quick to judge. There’s a very good chance that lazy flight attendant is a nonrev passenger, not a working crew member. Looks can be deceiving.

Standby – waiting for an open seat on a flight that one is not ticketed on, whether it’s an airline employee or a passenger who is ticketed on a specific flight who has decided to depart at a different time.

Nonreving – (non-revenue passenger) flying standby on an airline employee’s travel passes. Nonrev’s are always at the the bottom of the standby list

Commuting – When an airline employee nonrevs from the city he/she lives to a city he/she is based. Because I commute to New York (where I’m based) from Los Angeles (where I live), I’m an LA commuter.

Deadheading – traveling on company time to cover a trip departing out of a city different from where one is based. This usually happens on a reserve month when a base is short flight attendants. Flight attendant gets paid to deadhead, but aren’t officially working the flight. Deadheaders go to the top of the standby list surpassing ticketed standbys.

Most nonrevs travel in uniform in order to bypass the line at security and bring liquids on board. Others wear their uniform because they’ve just finished a sequence and didn’t have time to change clothes because they had to sprint across the terminal to catch a commuter flight home. While some wear their uniforms because they’re actually going to work as soon as they step off the airplane.

Once while deadheading back to base in uniform, the agent issued me an aisle seat in the front row of coach. I happened to be the last passenger to board. As soon as I sat down a man two rows back started in with, “Why does she get to sit in that seat! I wanted that seat! She’s an airline employee – that’s not right!”

Seconds later the agent asked me to switch seats with the complainer. I sighed, grabbed my belongings, and switched seats. As soon as I settled into the second seat I heard it all over again. Another passenger wanted my seat, a seat they deserved, not me. A flight attendant working the flight leaned over and quietly asked me if I’d be willing to switch. I didn’t have much. I was in uniform. And so I played musical chairs again.

On a different flight a passenger turned around, glared at me, a lowly uniformed crew member sitting in a passenger seat, and yelled, “This airline sucks!” after the Captain made an announcement that the flight had been canceled.

It was hard not reacting to that.

The first thing nonreving airline employees do the morning of their trip is check the passenger load. This takes place seconds after rolling out of bed while the coffee is still brewing. Airline employees will continue to check the standby list constantly throughout the day right up until departure time. Of course passenger loads determine the outfit.

Here I am doing what I always do before a flight, while trying to nonrev from Chicago to New York last week – #88 on the standby list.


My nonreving outfit of choice consists of dark blue jeans and a blouse or dressy shirt when the flights are open and I know there won’t be a problem getting a seat in coach. Needless to say, it’s been awhile since I’ve worn jeans on the airplane. What I usually end up sporting is a nice pair of trouser pants with the same kind of shirt mentioned above – just in case the only seat available is located in first class – or a jumpseat.

At my airline jeans, shorts, T-shirts, and flip-flops are not allowed to be worn by nonrevs occupying jumpseats or premium cabins. This explains why nonrevs are some of the best dressed passengers on board the airplane and why I can spot a nonrev a mile away.

Even my husband has an official nonrev outfit; khaki pants, a button down shirt, and brown boots. The funny thing about this is he actually refers to it as his “nonrev outfit” even when he’s not traveling on my passes.

Recently on a flight to Dallas, Murphy, a commuting flight attendant based in New York, boarded the airplane dressed in navy blue polyester. I couldn’t help but notice a bundle of clothes tucked under her arm and the sneakers peaking out from under her pants. Quickly she threw her crew bag into the overhead bin and made a beeline for the lav. A few minutes later she exited the bathroom wearing a smile and looking a whole lot more comfortable.

“What’s the secret to changing clothes in the lav?” I asked Murphy as I served her a beverage during the flight. “Like how do you do it so quickly in such a contaminated confined space?” Murphy shared the following tips…


  1. Have your clothes ready to go. That means get them out of your bag before you board the flight.
  2. Change into the shoes you want to wear before you get on the airplane. That way you’ll have less to carry and you won’t be tripping all over yourself in the lav.
  3. Wear (uniform) pants instead of a dress. They’re easier to change out of when you’re in a hurry.
  4. Take advantage of the baby changing table. Use it to hold your clothes. No changing table? Line the sink with paper towels.

Make sure to check out my next Galley Gossip post about a new website for airline employees (and retirees). Until then, here are a few other posts involving the joys of nonrev travel:

Photo courtesy of travelin librarian

Plane Answers: “When did first class become the crew lounge?”

Welcome to Gadling’s latest feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from take off to touch down and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

Dennis asks:

As one who travels somewhat frequently for business and pleasure, I have taken notice recently of just how pervasive it has become for United Airlines (the carrier I usually fly) to seat airline employees dressed in full uniform (most probably dead heading to the next hub) in the First Class cabin, even though in many cases there are ample seats available in economy. Somehow I get a little offended by this. At the very least, wouldn’t it be a show of goodwill if space is indeed available to upgrade paying customers at the gate and let the crew sit in back? Is this a common practice amongst all airlines? What are your comments on this topic?

Thanks for the question, Dennis.

While I can’t speak for United Airlines, I can give a little background on this practice as it relates to my airline. Employees have negotiated improvements to their benefits as they relate to non-revenue travel and deadheading while at work.
For us, non-revenue coach travel is free for employees with at least five years of employment. If the employee would like to travel in first class, a fee is assessed. In either case, the employee is responsible for the taxes normally applied to airline tickets as well as a separate income tax on this benefit.

Deadheading employees are often used to fill gaps in coverage at other bases or if one of their legs of a trip has cancelled. These employees can put themselves on the upgrade list online or while at the gate.

In both of the above cases, crews are offered seats up front only after all first class revenue passengers and frequent flyer upgrade requests have been met. These seats would have otherwise gone unfilled. Pilots and flight attendant unions often negotiate these benefits, and airlines are willing to use them to attract new employees.

I discussed this policy with a gate agent today and she explained that some confusion occurs when passengers that request to use an upgrade voucher give up and decide to take their originally assigned coach seat during the boarding process. Usually the agents wait for no-show passengers before processing the upgrade requests, and if a passenger elects to take their seat in the back they’re unable to go on board and move that passenger up to first class.

Airlines are hesitant to upgrade coach passengers even with empty seats in first class probably because they don’t want remove any incentive for travelers to pay for that premium seat.

Employees have sacrificed their pay and work rules for the past seven years–often helping their airlines pull through some tough times. I hope you don’t fault them if they’re sitting in an otherwise unused first class seat every now and then.

On a somewhat related note, my Irish friend Ruthann provided me with a story that might just work for you if you’re out of upgrade vouchers:

Several years ago, a sales department (frequent travelling) co-worker of mine was passing through LAX on his way back to Ireland when he decided to try his chances with the AA desk clerk and charm her with his Irishy Irishness. He put on his best leipreachán accent and requested an upgrade to first class.

The lady seemed to flirt with him, and was very happy to upgrade the remainder of his trip to first class for free. It was love at first sight, at least for her. He promised her the world, being the funny, jokey charmer that he is. He came back and boasted to us all about the AA clerk he’d charmed into a free upgrade.

A few days later, he got a long distance call. She had kept his info and phoned him, just to see if he got to Ireland safely…

Several years later and they’re due to get married soon.

So there you go. But you might want to proceed with caution if you don’t have the requisite Irish Irishyness!