The days of hanging around the agent's desk, hoping for a free switch to an earlier flight are over at American for many passengers.
The nation's second-largest airline said Wednesday that starting with tickets bought on Feb. 22, only elite frequent fliers, travelers in first or business class, military personnel and people who bought pricey coach tickets will be allowed to fly standby for free.
Everyone else switching flights on their day of travel will have to pay $50 to get a confirmed seat.
In announcing the change, American played down the price and said it was improving the boarding process by eliminating the gaggle of standby fliers who flock to the desk before flights.
"On some flights we have over 100 people going standby," and their names must be manually entered into the computer system, said American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith. "Because of the sheer numbers, it can be cumbersome to get the boarding process started on time."
Smith acknowledged, however, "There is probably some revenue involved here," a point that critics were quick to pick up on, especially since well-heeled premium passengers will still be allowed to fly standby for free.
"It's the people who really want a cheap fare who are getting slammed by the fees and now when it comes to standby," said Anne Banas, executive editor of Web site SmarterTravel.com.
American started charging for a confirmed seat change in 2005. You could pay that fee and know you had a seat, "or you could just hang around the gate and hope a seat would open up and they'd give it to you free," said George Hobica, founder of travel site airfarewatchdog.com.
"It's not a new fee," Hobica said of American's announcement. "It's the elimination of a free loophole."
Airlines have different policies about flying standby. Delta, like American, gives special flight-changing privileges to elite frequent fliers and charges customers with nonrefundable fares $50 to change their departure on the day of travel.
Continental lets some customers change flights for $25 or $50; it's free for elite fliers. Southwest requires travelers at some lower fares to effectively pay for a pricier ticket.
United still allows regular coach customers to fly standby for free, or they can pay $75 for a certain seat.