Why Airline Buddy Passes Suck

This week, travel guy Christopher Elliott talks about the growing worthlessness of buddy passes—the travel vouchers airline employees get for family members, or unhappy customers sometimes get as a peace offering. For examples, “on American Airlines, it’s often less expensive to buy an advance-purchase ticket than to use a buddy pass, once you factor in all taxes and fees.” And Continental will add a $100 to $400 surcharge per buddy pass starting this Monday, rendering the “perk” of a buddy pass entirely moot.

But wait. It gets better.

As a result of current market conditions, CO is no longer in a position to absorb additional fuel costs for the weight of a Buddy Pass rider’s second checked bag. Like non-elite revenue passengers, Buddy Pass riders will be assessed a $25 service charge for their second checked bag. When applicable, excess, overweight, and oversized baggage charges will still apply.

This is sending a clear message to Continental’s employees: Our elite frequent fliers are more important than your friends and family. What a shame.

So the next time some airline apologist points out that Gokhan Mutlu, the JetBlue toilet passenger, was flying on a buddy pass, it’s worth noting that these passes hardly pass for a perk anymore.

“You call that a perk? The truth about airline buddy passes” [Elliott.org]

“JetBlue Forces Passenger To Sit On Toilet For Flight”
(Photo: Getty Images)


Edit Your Comment

  1. Franklin Comes Alive! says:

    My wife flew enough for work a few years ago to get a Southwest companion pass (took 100 points in their system to get this). For a year, I got to fly free with her whenever I wanted to. As long as she wasn’t buying the last seat on the plane, I got one too. There were a few fees I occasionally had to pay, but it was always in the $5-10 range. It was awesome.

  2. dragonfire81 says:

    Man I am glad I have absolutely no need to fly.

  3. polyeaster says:

    I don’t plan on flying anywhere…buddy pass or otherwise…for a long time. It just sounds like a huge pain in the ass!

  4. Buran says:

    It doesn’t matter if the guy was flying on a buddy pass. Regulations state that each passenger must have a belted seat.

  5. leastcmplicated says:

    I flew on Delta’s buddy pass roundtrip from GA to CT for $80 buddy passes rock.

  6. 44 in a Row says:

    It also depends on where you’re flying. I only have experience with AA, but I’ve generally found that for domestic flights, passes aren’t worth it — it’s often only a little bit cheaper, and the small savings isn’t worth the inconvenience of having to fly standby. Internationally, on the other hand, you can save a ton of money.

  7. MercuryPDX says:

    Back in the day, I loved flying on TWA Employee/Buddy Passes. Even though you were supposed to be treated like any other passenger (or slightly less), the air crew knew (based on the way the ticket was coded) and some would discreetly provide you perks like “over ordered” first class meals, drinks, etc..

    I recently flew on an American Airlines pass, and can only say the times have changed. It seems like the goal is to treat you bad enough so you’ll buy a ticket next time.

  8. steve says:

    Chris Elliott, thanks for the travel tips… and you were great in Scary Movie 2

  9. Jenng says:

    My husband works for SWA and we get buddy passes for our family every quarter. He as an employee pays taxes on the buddy passes and we give them to our family and friends who incur no cost at all to use them. It’s a really nice perk and we (nor have anyone we have given tickets to) have never had an issue.

  10. MissTic says:

    Well the guy who rode the JetBlue toilet would probably agree with the article.

  11. Ryan H says:

    I don’t get the whole idea of them not being able to absorb the fuel cost of a second piece of luggage.

    Let me get this straight. My twenty-five pound second bag is going to break your accounting books. But the fat lady sitting in the next seat (and hanging over both sides a little) that weighs a good 200 pounds more than me pays the same for a ticket.

    If wight is really an issue they should just start charging for everything by wight. $X per pound for luggage and a little more per pound for passengers.

  12. basket548 says:

    From the article above:

    “This is sending a clear message to Continental’s employees: Our elite frequent fliers are more important than your friends and family. What a shame.”

    Why is that a shame? Shouldn’t the most frequent, most profitable customers come before people that don’t even work for the airline?

  13. basket548 says:

    @Ryan H:

    While I agree with your overall sentiment, from a business standpoint it just doesn’t make any sense at all. If an airline charged by the pound (for passengers), can you imagine both the public outcry and the passengers who wouldn’t fly the airline?

    As far as the luggage, most airlines DO have a weight limit, after which an extra charge will apply. And it’s not a one-to-one relationship on cost – additional baggage requires more space and more handling as well as more fuel. Just because consumers have gotten used to having a ‘free’ second bag doesn’t mean that it should be the norm. Frankly, I think that all airlines should charge for checking all bags and pass along the savings to customers that deal with their luggage themselves.

  14. Ryan H says:

    Oh behalf of all skinny people who have been seated between two very fat people on an airline, I can’t express enough my lack of sympathy for the people that would be unable to fly if they were charged by the pound.

    I agree that that luggage has costs involved with it. I simply think it is unrealistic for a form of transportation where all the costs are based on weight and volume to charge a flat fee.

  15. basket548 says:

    @Ryan H:

    Not unable, but unwilling to fly THAT airline. And yeah, as someone who has been treated to thighs pouring out from under the armrest (great visual, right?), I totally agree that completely oversized people should respect those passengers who can stay within the confines of their seats. Southwest has the right policy there.

    Not that I personally have done analysis on it, but I’m willing to bet that the majority of an airline’s cost come from factors completely unrelated to weight. Fees are simply a way to keep fares low, so as to continue to attract the American consumer, who typically takes the lowest fare possible, rather than the lowest overall cost.

  16. neilb says:

    Internationally, the destination country taxes still apply. My wife and I spent $300 (mainly taxes–not including the $200 ticket price) to fly to the UK. It would have only been $150ish to Spain.
    I am not complaining…just pointing out that even factoring out the airline entirely, the price can vary largely.

    Side note: Standby seems to be getting more difficult as of lately (USAirways).

  17. avsfan123 says:

    That’s stingy…I talked to a United employee the other day and he says he can’t fly on his own airline as an employee without paying service charges.

    My Frontier flight benefits have buddy pass riders paying a max of $60 for a round trip, unless of course they’re going international, where you have to pay int’l taxes.

  18. iMe2 says:

    Should be called bitch pass.

  19. Ryan H says:

    Once again, I fail to see the issue. I guarantee that for every fat person unwilling to fly on that particular airline they would have two thin people queuing up. So all the other airlines have to deal with the extra weight passengers and the thin people don’t lose their arm rests to their neighbor’s belly rolls. Win-Win as far as I a can see :)

    More seriously, the ‘Ask The Pilot’ article on Salon today talks about airline expenses. And the one main point is that fuel cost is the single biggest factor, dwarfing everything else. After the mechanics of the actual flying (speed/hardware/weather/all that stuff), the only thing inside the plane that affects fuel expenditure is weight. If all ~450 passengers on a 747 weighed an average of 100 pounds less, that’s over twenty tons in savings. You can’t tell me that saving twenty tons in weight on every flight wouldn’t make a measurable difference in fuel cost.

  20. JustThatGuy3 says:

    “This is sending a clear message to Continental’s employees: Our elite frequent fliers are more important than your friends and family.”

    Sounds right to me.

  21. Kbomb says:

    Dad is an airline mechanic. I’ve flown this way all my life. Take it from me: buddy passes are a thing of the past. It will soon be that they can’t even afford the gas for your ass in the seat, let alone your luggage. Besides, standby buddy passes mean clearing out about 3 or 4 days on each side of your flying schedule since planes are so full these days that your more likely than not to be bumped. My time is not worth sitting in the airport for 24 hours to save $100.

  22. basket548 says:

    @Ryan H:

    Air Skinny? I have to admit, I do like the idea of “You must not extend beyond this point to ride…” Realistically, though, lawsuits and all that will prevent the idea from ever seeing the light of day.

    OK, point taken on fuel consumption. However, most US flights are domestic, non-747 flights. And 100 pounds??? 25 pounds per passenger is FAR more realistic. Call it 180 people per flight (which is generous in itself. Still 2 tons, so significant, but how much so?

  23. DaisyGatsby says:

    Flew on US Airways buddy passes twice in the past year with no problems (once round trip NY to Los Angeles, once round trip New York to Phoenix). Only once did I get bumped and that was only because the flight before mine had been canceled. I ended up getting home a (sarcasm alert) whopping 10 hours late. Both flights in total cost $220.

    Maybe my two trips were more the exception than the rule, but I won’t complain. Know what you’re getting into (research flight loads, schedules, etc.) to keep surprises to a somewhat controllable minimum…

    …or quit bitching and buy a ticket. :)

  24. ludwigk says:

    @Ryan H: Erp, did you mean 100 lbs less? So we’re replacing the entire passenger crew with 8 year olds? Average weight for a US adult is around 155 (f), and 190 (m). So, how exactly do we get everyone to lose 50-65 of their total body mass?

  25. DeltaPurser says:

    Well, while we’re at it… let’s compare apples to apples:

    Buddy Passes are AWESOME when somebody needs a last minute ticket. Walk up fare from JFK to LAX is probably somewhere around $800, whereas a Buddy Pass can be had for about $100.

    Also, perhaps most important: Buddy Pass for a flight from the US to Europe; around $3-400… IN BUSINESS CLASS (if there’s a seat left)!!! That’s about 5% of the regular business class fare.

  26. skilled1 says:

    I fly using Alaska Airlines Guest / Buddy passes ALL the time. (Infact I used one not even 6 hours ago to get home). Look, When you are paying 10% of the cost of a regular ticket eg 34$ one way anywhere in the continent, who the hell is going to complain? I mean really, even with a 25$ charge, it’s still DRASTICALLY cheaper then paying for a ticket at regular price.

    Don’t like it? Don’t fly.

  27. FLConsumer says:

    @Ryan H:Amen brother! Let me know when an airline starts a “pay by the pound” campaign and I’ll gladly sign up. *OR* give me that extra capacity in luggage.

    Re: Buddy passes, I still use them frequently on numerous airlines. Received some awesome perks from the crews on a few flights (business/first class, niceties getting past the TSA lines, very good baggage handling)

    The best thing is the flexibility. I usually keep a few active buddy passes on my BlackBerry and love being able to just high-tail it to a different city for the weekend. Just wander to the airport ticket counter and you’re on the next avail flight out.

    Of course, if you fly this way frequently, you learn WHEN it’s best NOT to use them (national holidays/etc), when the flights are normally full. Also helps to keep an eye on the weather to make sure you don’t find yourself stranded in a city you’d rather not be (at your own expense) for a few days.

  28. snapbox says:

    I recently flew from Miami to London using an AA Buddy Pass… First Class both ways cost me a whopping total of $500 round trip.

    That was $500 well spent… retail on those tickets are $5,000 each way.

  29. swlela62 says:

    I’m the wife of a Continental employee. Before 911 a domestic buddy pass was $25 one way in the lower 48 states + tax. As soon as 911 happend CAL used that as an excuse to increase the pass fee. They doubled it to $50 one way plus an additional $2.50 each way TSA tax.

    Now they are using fuel prices to increase it again. Instead of perhaps a 10,20,30, or even a 50% increase, they double it. Now a pass is $102.50 + tax one way in the lower 48 states. With a 30 day adance notice you can fly from Houston to Denver for a total of $229.00. Our passes are worthless unless it’s international. The employee perk is gone.

    Employess who have less then 10 completed years of service pay $12.50 each way for travel. After that is “free”, if you can get on!

    I believe that Continental has the worse employee pass program and highest buddy pass program.

    For those of you who have used buddy passes on other airlines, what do they charge. UAL, AA, Delta, USAir. And are they sticking it the employee to offset the high cost of fuel?