Trying to Fly Standby out of Australia’s Sydney Kingsford Smith International Airport


Flying standby is a bit of a game of roulette. You can get very lucky and win big, or you can spend time over and over again loosing against luck. Our efforts to get out of Sydney, Australia on an international and intercontinental flight in advance of the holiday season were challenging and made for a drama filled day. Truth be told, I didn’t enjoy the waiting or the chance it took in order to get there. However, if you have the patience and the means, you might be able to see a lot of the world for not very much money.

This post is one chapter in our trip to Australia on Air Canada & Qantas Business Class and United Airlines. This trip was booked using British Airways Executive Club Avios and Starwood Preferred Guest (Marriott Bonvoy) points. For more information on how this trip was booked, please see our trip introduction here. For other parts of the trip, please see this index.

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Trying to Fly Standby on an International Flight out of Sydney Kingsford Smith International Airport, Australia.

After landing in Sydney after our Qantas Business Class Adelaide – Sydney flight, I shored up some free wifi from the Qantas Club to check in to see if my sister was able to make it on her flight out of Adelaide. She did (while we were airborne) and would be meeting us in an hour at the Sydney International Terminal. 

Getting to the Sydney Kingsford Smith International Terminal:

We exited the Sydney’s Domestic Terminal 3 and took the Airport Link train over to the Sydney International Terminal. Since we weren’t connecting on a Qantas or One World flight, and had bags to collect, we didn’t attempt to take the airside bus made available to select One World connecting passengers. It’s a bit of a revenue sham as the International Terminal and the Domestic Terminal are on opposite sides of the same airfield with no free means of connecting between the two. We used the Airport Link and we were each $5.40 AUD poorer. At least it was an opportunity to use up some spare Australian coin. 

After waiting around for an hour, we met my sister at the United airlines check in desk to plan our way home. Unlike our Air Canada Business Class Vancouver – Sydney flight departing Canada, non revenue passengers are not issued standby boarding passes to get into the secure side unless they have a confirmed seat. This means that once the flight has closed, and all the revenue passengers have checked in, the non-revenues are assigned seats based on priority. You then get the pleasure of rushing through immigration, and British style invasive security screening, to the gate with approximately 40-45 minutes to spare. This wouldn’t be so bad if the process wasn’t so intensive. As most of you have already experienced, it takes a while to complete the international departure process. 

We decided on a first available and accessible”flight strategy out of Sydney, instead of waiting for one particular carrier. We could have played more leisurely by restricting to one specific carrier with higher standby priority but chose to maximize our opportunities in order to minimize time getting off the continent. 

Attempt #1:

United Airlines 840: Sydney – Los Angeles

We listed for United Airlines 840 Sydney – Los Angeles. Even expert flyer was showing several seats available. However, several mis-connects probably caused by thundershowers and several late passengers who failed to check in on time were likely to fill up these seats. Regardless, we presented ourselves at the check in counter and weighed and measured the bags that needed to be checked. 

United Ground Services at Sydney Kingsford Smith
United Airlines Premier Access
United Ticket Line Up’s

Our ticket reservations were verified. We parked ourselves over at the departure benches along with all the other non-revenue passengers and waited for the flight to close. Based on demographics and judgment, I estimated that there were about 15 non revenue passengers around us waiting to get on. When there is nothing to do to pass the time, other than people watch, you can get pretty creative in wondering who is who.

Guessing your Fellow Standby Passengers

At about T-50, there was a flurry of activity amongst the ground staff. Printers running, boarding cards being spit out, walkie talkie radios squaking information back and forth. The ground staff appeared to work their hardest under these time constrained environments. A bunch of names were announced over the PA system. I saw a cute older couple in their late sixties / early seventies say goodbye to each other in about thirty seconds as the husband left his wife behind for one last available seat. With a quick kiss, he was off on his way. She stayed behind to ply her chances like everyone else. The flight filled up in seconds and we were not among the chosen few. Strike one was over just like that. 

Attempt #2:

Air Canada Flight 34: Sydney – Vancouver

We listed for the next available flight: Air Canada 34 Sydney – Vancouver. Although, it was interesting to note that some people waiting around for the United Flight just got up and left the airport entirely. We repeated the process. We rolled ourselves over to the Air Canada check in desks, weighed the bags and checked the identifications.

Air Canada Bag Drop Sydney Kingsford Smith
Air Canada Sydney Kingsford Smith Check In Counters

We waited amongst the kiosks for the non revenues to be called after the flight closed at the one hour mark. This time, it appeared that there were about 12 persons listed amongst the people in the holding non revenue waiting area. Less comfortable than any lounge, we were standing around some random displaced coffee table countertops awaiting our traveling fate. Similar to a close knit family, any attempt at humor and new friends are inevitable during these pressure filled situations. We ended up chatting with a Westjet Airlines pilot who was based out of Toronto, Canada. Familiar with the standby game, he was traveling on an even lower priority than us. The musings about the game of standby roulette were made a little more entertaining with his sense of humor. The standby crowd seemed to grow with every minute that passed by.

Standby Crowds: You Know it’s a bad sign when this…
…Goes to This

At about T-50, even worse luck. I should have guessed it from the complete lack of activity around the Air Canada ground crew who were busy packing up the carry on container displays and other Air Canada branded priority check in signs. The lead announced that no contingent travelers were being permitted on board today. At this point, it was strike two for us within the past three hours. There was only one accessible flight to us remaining for the day. 

Attempt #3: 

United Airlines Flight 870: Sydney – San Francisco

We listed for the last North American flight of the day, United Airlines 870 Sydney – San Francisco. We repeated the process for the third time. We held over at the seated counters where we were 4 hours ago. During this agonizing waiting period, I started to check revenue air options and hotel rooms for the night. 

Simply put, here is where the main disadvantage to stand by travel is. If you miss your last flight of the day, and you are completely stuck, without any form of protection or re-assurances that you will get out of town. You’ll have to turn up the next day and repeat the process without any seniority advantage or priority over others that are there for the first time. There is nothing like stress on something that is completely beyond your control without means of predicting or having any insight as to what will happen. Maybe it’s a situation of having meetings and projects to get back to, or maybe it’s just my impatience in my older age? It wasn’t a circumstance that I looked forward to repeating. 

At about T-50, the lead manager approached the podium in the now deserted United Check in area, the first ten names were announced over the public address system. We were not among them. Crap. 

I couldn’t help but recall the final scenes of the Hollywood movie Titantic; when Rose and Jack are at the top of the bridge of the almost sunk ship and Rose glances around at all the other passengers, wondering their fate. Well, okay, that’s a bit melo-dramatic. But in comparison, I was glancing around at the fellow standbys wondering who would be next and who would be stuck? Everyone waiting seemed to handle this news with a different reaction.

We started to sink to the realization that we might be spending an extra night in Sydney. It was not looking good. As the Christmas holidays approached, planes would be reasonably expected to be fuller and fuller with likely lesser and lesser opportunities to depart. Mrs WT73 started typing an email to her boss indicating that she would not be back at work as planned.

At T-45, somehow, with some amazing stroke of luck, our party of three was called. We pretty much leapt to the counter and got our boarding cards, reading “SBY” on the seat assignments. We said a quick good bye to the others who were unsuccessful, including our new Westjet pilot friend whom we’ll probably never see again, and tore off in a mild sprint through the airport towards the departures. 

United Airlines Standby Boarding Passes

We entered the Sydney departure area with all the kettles. We joined a very long immigration departure line. Of course, flying as a non rev means that you don’t get access to fast track lanes or business class priority screening. A first or business class escort to the gate would have really helped here, but that’s just my inside voice talking. It was an agonizing wait in a line like this at about T-35 prior to your international flight. The other travellers were oblivious to my circumstances and certainly weren’t in a rush. Thirty five minutes to your flight departing with a line like this…

Sydney Security Screening Queues

Throughout this process, I got separated from MrsWT73 and my sister. On my own, I tried to get a bit of “front of the line” treatment using my imminent departure time but the line dragons weren’t interested in helping me. “You should be all right”. I passed through the Australian Exit Immigration and was cleared through immigration without an Australian Exit Passport stamp. 

It was T-25 when I made it out of the security screening checkpoint. Thanks to getting lucky with the security lines, my sister and MrsWT73 had gotten ahead by using a shorter maze and fully on board the plane. I got this message that sent me into a mild traveling panic. Read the white text:

Distressing Travel What’s App Messages!

I used to have this attitude of disbelief when I saw others running through airport concourses, trying to catch planes, buses and taxis. I often thought, how did things go so bad that you are so late for your plane? Well, here I was, through no fault of my own, running in a full mis fit sprint, laptop in hand from the security screening tray, running down toward Gate 53. My circumstances were especially dire as if the door closed, I wouldn’t be re-protected on another flight and would have to start the whole standby process over again. I’d been at the airport waiting around for 5 hours at this point, not to mention the 4 AM wake up and earlier flight in from Adelaide. It was certainly an endearing moment and gave me new sympathies to those travellers, for whatever reason or another, whom have ended up late for their flights. 

I was in a full spastic sprint by the time I rounded out of the Sydney International duty free area. Through the concourse windows, I happened to see our United plane at Gate 53 with two cargo doors on the right side still open so I knew that I had a bit of time left. I got to the gate huffing and puffing in a full sprint sweat. I traded my standby boarding pass card for a seat assignment. I was surprised as I was actually assigned an aisle seat as I was fully expecting a middle given the difficulty we had in our group getting on.

A quick double document check by security and the UA ground agent and I was rolling down the bridgeway, onwards and out of Australia. 

I often wonder how long it took before our pilot friend made it home. . .

If you’ve travelled standby internationally, do you find it to be as awkward and stressful an experience as I did?

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