Photo: Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock

Notes on 31 Hours of Standby in Brazil

by Ernest "Fly Brother" White II Sep 28, 2011
Ernest “Fly Brother” White II breaks down his 31-hour experience at São Paulo’s international airport.

4:15pm – Arrive at São Paulo’s international airport for your 11:55pm flight to Miami. The standby list opens four hours before departure time and you get there seven hours early so you can be #1, having learned the hard way. It’s a Thursday and you’ve left work early, hoping to beat the weekend rush. And you are #1 for your departure time – theoretically – , but you’re really #6, behind five people who didn’t make the morning flight.

4:20pm – Easy conversation starts to flow between you and your fellow non-revs (i.e. relatives and friends of airline employees who’ve paid a ridiculously reduced fare in order to fly on a space-available basis and are therefore “non-revenue” passengers), and you find out where they’re from (Cuiabá, Goiânia, Fortaleza) and how long they’ve been waiting for a seat (48 hours, 24 hours, 16 hours).

4:25pm – A rowdy bunch from tropical beach town Recife pulls up six-deep, excited and, well, loud. Bless ‘em, you all think. They’re insane if they think they’ll all get on the flight together. Everyone signs The List, securing their place according to arrival time, which will be used as a quasi-legally-binding document (because if you disrespect The List, thas yo ass) once the standby list officially opens.

4:30pm – The Non-Rev Containment Area on the ground level of the airport quickly descends into chaos as flights from other parts of Brazil arrive, depositing eager, already-tired folks into the confined space with the low ceiling and the soul-sucking fluorescent lighting. The horror stories start to circulate: a woman and her son have been trying since Sunday to get to Paris. 25 seats were available on the last flight to Milan but no non-revs were boarded. “Usually, it’s the Orlando flights that are booked solid; this is the worst I’ve ever seen for Miami.” Aw shit.

4:31pm – Light-hearted, enjoyable conversations ensue about culture, prices, shopping (EVERYone was flying with an empty suitcase and one clean pair of draws), and “seu português é ôtimo, cara.” Brazilians are hard-wired for unfailing affability and you’ll have 18 Facebook friend invites before you get outta there.

6:53pm – Word works its way through the Miami folks that the ominous-looking redhead who just arrived is an employee – The Employee – who will automatically have priority over everyone else, no matter how long they’ve waited. Word is, she’s also traveling with husband and teenager. She can smell the ire.

6:55pm – Haunches up, everyone queues (love that word) hastily next to their luggage which has already been queuing silently for a few hours, and the Miami flight opens; 21 non-revs list for a flight with zero seats un-purchased, but that also isn’t overbooked, so there’s hope for a few. Hunger descends like a sledgehammer.

7:25pm – You follow #s 2 and 3 through the labyrinth of hallways in the “employees only” area of the airport to the Employees Only Snack Bar, which has a limited selection of eats priced at near-real world levels (though still one or two reals more than what you’d pay at the corner snack stand). You flirt with a couple of the check-in agents who ask where you work. You laugh nervously, then walk away before they call sekurrity.

9:05pm – Laughs and jokes all around as you get to know your listmates a bit better…the cool-ass couple from Cuiabá who had Sawgrass on the brain, the husband-and-wife jokesters from Belém who could do every regional dance that exists in Brazil, the thick-accented gaúcho businessman whose skin was turning green because he hadn’t eaten meat all week due to a diet imposed on him by his wife. Mad coolness. Mad Brazilianness.

9:25pm – No non-revs make the Madrid flight. People are not liking that.

9:40pm – Two non-revs make the New York flight from a list of 15. Campers not happy.

10:15pm – Milan, none.

10:50pm – Miami? None. Not even The Employee who almost made it.

10:51pm – Furniture moving.

10:52pm – You purchase an over-priced bottle of water at the coffee shop near where you were sitting (you thought somebody had a chair thrown at them, didn’t you?).

10:53pm – The group is advised to try again in the morning at 6:30 for the 10:30am flight. A list is organized by the passengers, as it’s not the airline’s responsibility, to keep things as civilized as possible; you’re still #6. You’re also the only person among the group – besides The Employee – who lives in the city, but if you expect to be #6 in the morning, you better put in the time.

10:55pm – The Orlando people get told there aren’t any seats on the plane.

11:00pm – Nobody gets to Paris, either. Not even the lady and her son. All the people waiting for flights to Europe have another 23 hours to go.

11:05pm – The captain of the Orlando flight comes down to the Non-Rev Containment Area and snags, oh, about 12 people and takes them on his flight. Campers damn shole ain’t happy, now.

11:43pm – You drop into a fitful sleep under the now-very-bright fluorescent lights, supported by your suitcase and a luggage rack. The temperature drops into the upper 40s.

11:53pm – You wake up and squirm around a bit.

12:03am – You wake up and squirm around a bit.

12:13am – You wake up and squirm around a bit.

3:53am – You wake up and squirm around a bit.

4:03am – Fuck it. You get up and start doing some of the work you should have been doing since 4:15pm yesterday.

6:10am – Everyone’s up and the list has grown. There’s anxiety as everyone wonders if someone’s going to try and jump the line (and receive the subsequent beat-down).

6:31am – Listed!

10:29am – The Employee shows up.

10:31am – Zero go Miami way (Nelson-from-The-Simpsons-style “ha-ha” to The Employee & Fam).

10:50am – Numbers 1, 2 and 3 drop out and decide to either stay in São Paulo for a few days or go back to their hometowns. You, the couple from Cuiabá, and the Recife crew say screw dat…we gettin’ to Miami!

12:03pm – Can…barely…keep…eyes…open.

2:03pm – Can…barely…keep…eyes…open.

4:03pm – Your Portuguese is getting good as hell since you’re getting more practice in one day than you’ve gotten since moving to Brazil.

4:15pm – You’ve hit the 24-hour mark. There’s a gang of people on the list behind you (ha-ha) and the Europe flight wannabes are getting restless in their blazers and skinny jeans.

4:50pm – Shift #3 takes over and the manager gets yelled at by the disgruntled non-revs regarding last night’s Orlando debacle. He tells some kind of lie about jumpseats and whatnot, but he says it so commandingly, people believe him. You, of course, don’t and yell “I’m somebody’s son, too!”

6:20pm – Almost that time…natives, restlessness and whatnot.

6:32pm – Listed #3. No sign of The Employee, though two random old ladies try to Bogart their way up to the front, talkin’ bout they “stayed at the airport for the last three days.” Yet no one from the last day seems to remember these people, lyin’-ass old ladies.

7:20pm – You and the thick-accented gaúcho businessman go for some McDonald’s: you’re craving meat and it’s the cheapest thing in the airport, after the Employees Only Snack Bar. You bond over crazy regional accents in Brazil and the States, him teaching you a few gauchisms and you teaching him how to say “Pahk yo kah aht in na yahd” the way you say it in Nawf Flah-da.

8:20pm – Tired, exhausted, fatigued, and worn out, everybody waits, trying to avoid even having to consider a Plan B, but considering one anyway. The fourteen possible seats have been whittled down by half.

9:25pm – A few people make the Milan flight, but there’s shade because the dancing couple from Belém don’t make it, though they were slated to. Something about people in the line behind them knowing someone who knows the captain’s cousin’s sister’s best friend’s former roommate. Frowns all around.

9:28pm – In a somewhat botched attempt to quell the swelling angst among the masses, one of the ground staff members says, basically, if a captain comes down and chooses his cousin’s sister’s best friend’s former roommate over the 15 people ahead of her in line, she will indeed get to board and there is nothing you can do about it, bwa-ha-ha-haaaaaaaaaa!!!!!

10:40pm – The gaúcho makes Frankfurt and the lady and her son get Paris. Everybody cheers.

10:55pm – Success! You, the couple from Cuiabá, and one of the Recife 6 make the cut. But weren’t there supposed to be seven spaces on the list?

10:56pm – Saying goodbye to six or seven of your newly-minted friends does indeed suck, but all good things must come to an end; onward and upward, literally.

11:02pm – The Employee and Family are spotted passing through exit immigration. They didn’t even bother to come downstairs, the sneaky fiends! It’s all good, though…you’re finally off to Miami.

Epilogue – You help the cool-ass couple from Cuiabá change their rental car plans upon arrival at MIA, switching from Portuguese to English to Spanish and screwing it all up. They give you a ride to meet your peeps up in Fort Lauderdale. That’s what friends are for.

This article was originally published on

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