Do pilots get free tickets?

This is a common question that many people have about the airline industry. The short answer is that pilots generally do get free or discounted airline tickets as part of their airline employee benefits. However, the specific policies and procedures vary somewhat between different airlines. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll take an in-depth look at how pilot ticket benefits work.

The Basics of Pilot Ticket Benefits

Most airlines provide free or discounted “standby” tickets to pilots and other employees as part of their benefits packages. This allows pilots to fly for free or very cheaply when there is available space on flights. However, standby travel is not guaranteed – pilots may get bumped from flights if they are full from revenue passengers. So standby travel privileges are a perk but not an absolute guarantee of free travel.

In addition to standby travel, many airlines also give pilots a set allotment of “confirmed space” tickets each year. Confirmed space tickets guarantee the pilot a seat on the flight. The number of confirmed space tickets allotted varies by airline and seniority. New pilots may only get a handful, while very senior pilots at major carriers can get over 100 confirmed tickets.

Companion passes are another common pilot benefit. These allow pilots to designate family members or companions who can travel with them for free or discounted rates when flying standby or on confirmed tickets.

Standby Travel Policies

Standby travel is the most common way for pilots to fly for free or cheaply. It allows them to catch open seats on flights without paying. However, standby travel is not always guaranteed. Some things to know about standby policies:

  • Seating priority – Pilots and other airline staff are usually prioritized above the general public when flying standby. But more senior pilots may have priority over junior pilots in getting open seats.
  • Availability – Standby travel is more likely to be available on less full flights. Peak holiday times often have reduced standby availability.
  • Companions – Companion passes allow pilots’ family/friends to travel standby with them. Their chances mirror the pilot’s chances of getting on the flight.
  • Interline travel – Pilots can usually fly standby on partner airlines as well, subject to their policies.

Overall standby travel offers pilots the flexibility to fly for free or very low cost if seats are available. But it does require some flexibility on the pilot’s part as well.

Allotments of Confirmed Tickets

Most airlines also provide their pilots with allotments of confirmed space tickets each year in addition to standby privileges. With confirmed tickets, pilots are guaranteed a seat on the flight they book.

The allotment policies vary considerably by airline:

  • Number of tickets – Allotments range from only a handful at smaller carriers up to 100+ tickets annually at the biggest airlines.
  • Levels by seniority – More senior pilots usually get more confirmed ticket allotments than junior pilots.
  • Applicable fares – Tickets may only be confirmed in certain discounted fare classes, not the highest last-minute fares.
  • Companions – Companion passes can often be used to book free or discounted confirmed tickets for family/friends.
  • Scope – Confirmed tickets are often only applicable on the airline’s own flights, not interline partners.

Having a ration of confirmed tickets provides pilots much more reliability in their travel plans. They can book trips in advance and be assured of ticket availability.

Typical Companion Pass Policies

Most airlines with pilot free travel programs also offer companion passes. These allow pilots to designate family members or companion travelers who can fly with them, either on standby tickets or by using the pilot’s confirmed ticket allotment.

Here are some typical policies around companion passes:

  • Number of companions – Pilots may get passes for a spouse/partner plus dependent children. Retirees may only get passes for a spouse.
  • Standby travel – Designated companions can fly standby with the pilot for free or discounted rates.
  • Confirmed tickets – Companions can be booked on the pilot’s allotment of confirmed space tickets.
  • Exceptions – Companions may not be allowed on certain deeply discounted employee ticket fares.

Companion passes are a valuable way for airline pilots to share their travel benefits with family. It allows them to fly together using the pilot’s privileges.

Tax Implications of Free Tickets

Airline pilots receiving free or discounted travel must pay taxes on the value of the tickets they use. The IRS considers free travel a form of taxable income.

Pilots must pay federal income taxes on:

  • The value of standby tickets used
  • The value of confirmed tickets used
  • The value of any companion tickets used

Typically the airline will calculate the deemed value of the tickets and issue pilots an IRS Form W-2 including the taxable ticket benefits. Pilots are responsible for paying taxes on these amounts like regular income.

International Travel Policies

Airline pilot travel benefits typically apply on international flights as well as domestic. However, there may be some limitations.

For standby travel:

  • Interline agreements may offer reduced standby access to other carriers.
  • Immigration/customs controls may complicate standby travel on some routes.

On confirmed tickets:

  • Allotments may only apply on an airline’s own flights, not partners.
  • Discounted companion fares may not be allowed on international flights.

Overall, pilots can usually enjoy their pass benefits globally. But privileges may differ compared to domestic flights.

Retiree Pass Benefits

Most airlines also offer some level of free travel benefits to retired pilots.

Common retiree pass policies include:

  • Standby travel for retired pilots, often with a spouse/companion
  • A limited number of confirmed space tickets annually
  • Access ends upon a pilot’s death or divorce from a spouse
  • Retirees may have lower priority than active pilots for standby seats

Extent of benefits offered to retirees depends on the airline and a pilot’s years of service. Pass privileges are an important perk of completing an airline pilot career.

Interline Agreements for Pilots

Most major airlines participate in interline agreements that extend travel benefits to employees of partner carriers:

  • Pilots can fly standby on interline airlines at reasonable fares
  • Priority is below that of the operating airline’s own staff
  • Confirmed ticket allotments typically cannot be used on other carriers

Interline travel expand the flexibility of airline staff to fly for leisure and work. But privileges are not always identical to the employing airline.

How Pilot Benefits Compare to Other Airlines

Airline employee travel benefits vary somewhat between carriers both for pilots and other groups like flight attendants. Some key differences:

Airline Pilot Benefits
Delta Up to 108 companion tickets annually depending on seniority. Retirees get up to 24 companion tickets.
American Unlimited standby privileges for pilots. Retirees get standby access with lower priority.
United Up to 108 confirmed tickets per year depending on seniority class.
Southwest 32 confirmed tickets annually. Unlimited standby travel.

While the details vary, virtually all major carriers offer strong travel benefits to attract and retain pilots.

Travel Privileges at Regional Carriers

Regional airlines operating shorter flights on behalf of major carriers tend to offer weaker travel benefits than the majors:

  • Very limited confirmed tickets – perhaps only 2-4 annually
  • Companion travel allowed only on standby basis
  • No interline confirmed travel, only discounted standby
  • Reduced retiree benefits compared to majors

However, regional pilots can take advantage of the major’s benefits if they transition to flying for them. Pilot unions advocate for improving pass travel policies.

How Other Airline Staff Benefits Compare

Pilots tend to get the best travel benefits packages at airlines, but other groups of employees can receive strong benefits as well.

Job Typical Benefits
Pilots Top priority for standby seats. Sizable allotments of confirmed tickets.
Flight Attendants Favorable standby access. More confirmed tickets vs. ground staff.
Mechanics Good standby privileges. Smaller allotment of confirmed tickets.
Gate Agents Decent standby flying. Very limited confirmed seats.

Pilot pass travel benefits are the gold standard. But other airline employees can take advantage of standby privileges and affordable confirmed tickets.

Policies for Newly Hired Pilots

Newly hired pilots at airlines have more restricted benefits during initial years:

  • No confirmed space ticket allotment
  • Limited companion pass privileges
  • Lower priority vs. senior pilots for standby seats
  • Interline travel may not be allowed

However, benefits improve with seniority. Airlines want to retain pilots for the long haul with improving privileges over a career.

Downsides of Pilot Benefits to Consider

Free travel is a major job perk for pilots but there are also some downsides:

  • Standby uncertainty makes planning harder
  • Blackout dates can eliminate benefits during peak times
  • Being bumped from flights causes inconvenience
  • Taxes must be paid on benefits used
  • Retiree pass policies can be changed or reduced

The privileges are extremely valuable but not always 100% flexible for pilots. Tradeoffs apply, like with most airline employee benefits.

How Airlines Determine Policy Details

Several factors guide how airlines shape their specific pilot pass travel policies:

  • Union contracts – Pilot unions negotiate travel benefits during contract talks
  • Industry standards – Policies are influenced by norms established across the airline industry
  • Business model – Low cost carriers may offer less than full service network airlines
  • Profitability – Healthy airlines can provide more generous benefits

An airline’s culture, leadership philosophy, and competitive environment also shape the benefits extended to employees like pilots.

Recent Trends and Changes

Some recent developments have impacted airline pilot travel benefits programs:

  • More confirmed seats – Airlines have allotted more confirmed tickets to senior pilots to improve reliability.
  • Increasing retiree benefits – Legacy carriers have enhanced retiree travel policies to help retention.
  • New entrants – Benefits at startups like JetBlue and Virgin skew more limited so far.

Pilot unions continue pushing for improved travel privileges during contract talks. The overall trajectory has been increased benefits over time at most established carriers.

Regional Differences in Policies

Pilot pass travel benefits have some regional variations driven primarily by different unions:

  • APA pilots at American have high flexibility on standby policies and a large confirmed seat allotment.
  • Delta pilots under ALPA bargaining have uncapped numbers of companion tickets.
  • Hawaiian pilots have strong inter-island benefits under ALPA but limited long-haul confirmed seats.

Benefits under airline-specific pilot unions reflect negotiations and the competitive landscapes carriers face.

Questions to Ask About Benefits When Hiring On

Prospective pilots considering an airline’s job offer should inquire about details of the travel benefits program:

  • How many annual confirmed ticket allotments can be earned with seniority?
  • Are there any blackout dates where benefits cannot be used?
  • What specific policies or limits apply to international flights?
  • What is the companion pass policy for family members?
  • Do retirees continue receiving travel benefits?

The answers can determine the ultimate value of the benefits package and long term advantages of working for that airline.


Free or discounted airline travel is a highly coveted job benefit for pilots. While details of policies vary between carriers, the privileges provide incredible value. Standby travel, allotments of confirmed tickets, and companion passes offer huge advantages for pilots and their families. Travel benefits remain a major incentive to pursue an airline pilot career.

Leave a Comment