A look at the discounted flight benefits for airline pilots

Do Pilots Get Free Flights? The Truth About Airline Pilot Benefits.

Here we’ll take a look at some of the most common travel benefits for airline pilots. It’s a hugely popular question, and is seen as one of the main perks of the job. Known as staff travel, pilots have access to a wealth of cut-price travel options, and an entire industry within an industry has formed around it.

So, do pilots get free flights? The answer to this question is a little complicated. There are numerous benefits that come with being an airline pilot, but you might be surprised to hear that free flights are not always one of them. 

However, some airlines do give their pilots free flights — known as concessions — and even for the airlines that don’t, there are still plenty of ways that pilots can save money on air travel!

We will cover the types of discounted tickets that airline pilots receive. Then, take a closer look at questions such as who gets access to the benefits? How many free tickets do pilots get? And, what other ticket types are there that allow pilots to save money on air travel.

Standby tickets

one trade off for discounted flights is running through airports

Quick look

Discount level: 90-100% reduction (plus taxes)
Amount: Unlimited

Seat: Economy

Downside: Last minute running to the gate!

One of the benefits that airline pilots receive is discounted standby tickets. This means that they can often get on a flight for a fraction of the cost of a regular ticket. This is a great perk for last-minute travel, and it can save pilots a lot of money.

Decades ago, standby tickets used to be free for pilots, flight attendants and most airline staff — but times are changing! In most cases, pilots don’t get standby flights completely free, they normally have to pay the cost of the tax on the seat.

There are a few things to keep in mind when using standby tickets.

  • First, the standby ticket is not a real commercial ticket. There’s no reserved space, and you are quite literally standing by.
  • Pilots will wait at the gate until the normal checkin process has closed. Once all the paying customers who have arrived on time have their seats, if there is a spare seat, you get on the flight. If not, you’re heading back home.
  • For this reason, some pilots don’t choose to use standby seats to take their family on holidays because it can be a risky business, especially when trying to find multiple free seats for a group.
  • Second, there are often more restrictions on standby tickets than regular tickets. For example, if the pilot doesn’t end up with a seat on the plane, or the journey is late, and they miss their connection, they won’t be entitled to any compensation.
  • So, for pilots and their families stuck abroad, hotel costs, or more expensive alternative routes home can be costly.
  • Standby tickets are only valid for the class they are booked in. Unlike other types of pilot concessions — which may result in an automatic upgrade to the best seat left available — most standby flights are in economy class.
  • Pilots can choose to book standby flights for business class, but they will pay the higher rates of tax business class tickets require. However, there is no assurance there will be any business class seats left. As a result, most don’t bother to take the chance.

Discounted rates

Collection of tickets of different classes, first, business, and economy

Quick look

Discount level: 5-50% reduction
Amount: 20+ per year

Seat: Economy / Business

Downside: Limited discounts on busy flights

Another benefit that airline pilots receive is discounted rates on normal airfares. Known in the industry as full fare — or commercial — tickets, these are identical tickets with the same guaranteed seat and travel assurances as normal passengers book.

The only difference in booking these discounted tickets is the way they are accessed. Many airlines offer a separate internal booking website — only available to airline staff — that pilots can use to book these discounted rates. This means that pilots among other staff often save money on flights, without the hassle of flying standby.

Some airlines offer a flat discount rate for staff groups. For example, staff may be grouped into tiers by their rank and role in the airline, with tier one offering 20% off, tier 2 offering 25% off and tier three offering 30% off etc.

Equally, some airlines use the same pricing structure that affects normal fares. With the revenue pricing system, lowering fares for empty flights and raising them for busy flights, but then applying an additional staff discount on top.

Top tip: Standby flights are normally completely free or a small amount, but they always involve paying the government tax for that seat. For many shorter flights, government taxes can make up to half of the fare. As a result, sometimes the discounted commercial flights available to pilots end up cheaper than standby flights.

Completely free flights for pilots

There are still normally two ways that pilots can get completely free flights.

  1. Travelling in uniform — known as positioning or commuter flights
  2. Annual flight tickets, known as concessions

Commuter flights

Standby flights often involve waiting at the back of the queue

Quick look

Discount level: 100% reduction
Amount: Unlimited

Seat: Jumpseat

Downside: Requires uniform

It’s no surprise to find out that working as a commercial airline pilot involves a lot of travel! However, many people don’t really quite how much of a lottery where pilots end up being based actually is. It can involve having to move across the country — or even continent — at the drop of a hat, as airlines decide they need more pilots at base X or Y.

For this reason, many pilots end up commuting large distances to work. While this practise has reduced lately, most airlines still offer free or nearly free flights for pilots that are travelling to and from work.

There are two cautions — you have to be wearing uniform, and normally are required to sit on a cabin or cockpit jumpseat. Jumpseats usually come with their set of rules and etiquette too!


Annual free tickets

Boarding pass at international airport

The holy grail of airline perks!

Quick look

Discount level: 100% reduction
Amount: 1–3 per year

Seat: First Class

Downside: Limited allocation

After a certain period of time, pilots at some carriers often receive annual concessions — completely free tickets.

  • Some airlines make their pilots pay the tax, whilst others stick to being completely free.
  • These concessions are heavily limited in number, often pilots will only start with one per year up to a maximum of 3 after a certain number of years working for the airline.
  • The type of seat is typically dependent on role and length of service, and frequently have similar rules to passenger travel companion seats.
  • For example, first officers will be able to reserve seats in premium economy or business class. And Captains be able to book seats in first class if available.
  • The best discounts are normally found at legacy carriers with international route networks and luxurious seats on offer.
  • Pilots can end up flying in first or business class seats that would cost thousands of pounds each way, completely free.

Who gets to travel — Do pilots get free flights for their family?

One of the most commonly asked questions about airline pilot benefits is, who gets to use them? Do pilots get free flights for their family? The answer to this question is normally yes, but only for immediate family. E.g a partner and any kids.

  • Some airlines do give their pilots free flights for their extended family, such as parents, for life, but this is very rare.
  • In general, airline pilots can use their standby benefit, and any yearly concession tickets only for themselves and 1-2 designated others, known as travel companions.
  • Retired pilots also often keep these benefits — sometimes for life — but often for the same amount of time as they worked for that particular airline. E.g a 20 year career = 20 years of discounted flights in retirement.
  • With only two spaces, this would be unfair on families with more than one child, and therefore there is no limit on the number of children permitted to be added to a pilot’s staff travel.
  • As a result, pilots with large families can end up with many more discounted tickets, but these free family flights are often a time-limited benefit
  • Once children reach a certain age (normally 18 or 21) they will become illegible for a pilots staff travel benefits, unless nominated as one of the two spaces
  • However, other reduced cost tickets available to pilots — such airline discounts — are often given without restrictions, and these can be used for a much wider number of family and friends.

Summary

Hopefully, this blog post has answered some of your questions about airline pilot travel benefits. While it may seem complicated, surprisingly, this is only a high-level overview — there are a myriad of additional rules and regulations that apply to pilots travelling on reduced price tickets! (Briefly summarised as — more stripes, more chance of getting on!)

So, do pilots get free flights? Yes, but the specifics really depends on the airline and the individual benefits that they offer. However, in most cases, only the pilot and their immediate family members (their partner and kids) can fly completely free.

Discounted flights? That’s another matter. While there are some airlines that give their pilots free flights, virtually all pilots receive discounted tickets.

While it has its difficulties, staff travel is still hugely beneficial for airline pilots and their families. In the industry it can be associated with last-minute dashes through airports, missing flights, and upset children. Despite this, virtually all pilots agree on one thing. When staff travel works, it’s great. It is a benefit that allows some pilots to travel the world in a way their salary alone would never allow them to.

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Josh
Josh

Flyingbynumber’s Resident Airline Captain — Josh

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