in ,

AirTran U: How College Students Used To Fly For Nearly Free

Penniless (or near that) college students looking for a cheap domestic flight in the 90s or early 2000s were in luck, thanks to AirTran’s AirTran U program.

By JKruggel [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Boasting the Best of Budget

AirTran was founded in the early 1990s as a low-budget airline. It would go on to absorb ValuJet Airlines and then was acquired by Southwest Airlines in 2011. At its heyday, AirTran operated around 700 daily flights across the East Coast and Midwest, with its primary hub in Atlanta (ATL). It was the world’s largest operator of the Boeing 717-200 aircraft. Proving that despite its low prices and eventual merger, AirTran was a formidable competitor in the budget airfare arena. It became the first major airline to outfit 100 percent of its fleet with in-flight internet. At the end of its life, it was considered the best, safest U.S. airline for number of minor incidents. 

AirTran U

Beyond the excellent safety record and in-flight WiFi, however, AirTran was also known for a quirky promotion that set it apart among young travelers. AirTran U allowed travelers 18-22 to fly at a very minimal cost, but not through traditional means. All tickets were sold on standby, so you were required to be ready to travel at a moment’s notice. If the last-minute seat was available, you were required to be near the gate and ready to board (often leading to hopeful travelers waiting around a ticket counter for hours). No checked luggage was allowed but you could bring a carry-on. 

What if you didn’t make the flight? The program was set up in such a way that young travelers applied for multiple dates, paid an overall cost for short- or long-haul segments, so that if their preferred date and time didn’t work out, they could easily come back for their next preferred date and time.

The program was a boon for cheap college students who either wanted to travel the world, or get a quick trip back to visit family and friends. Fares were generally under $100 to any destination and, if you booked a standby flight on Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday, you were more likely to snag that coveted spot. 

However, blackout dates for AirTran U included many major holidays and holiday weekends, eliminating the opportunity to use AirTran U for holiday travel. While that might seem a little unfair when considering a program meant to benefit college students, it’s also fair to point out that the majority of the blackout dates are high travel days anyway, so the likelihood of a student claiming one of those standby slots was very slim.

Is Standby Travel Still Possible?

Flying standby for most people doesn’t quite still work the same way, unless you are an airline employee or eligible for limited ID90 programs. And it’s not exactly the budget-hunter’s friend as it once was for most people. This is partially due to the way we now book flights in general (typically online) as well as security matters. 

Standby still exists for airline employees and for passengers who have been inconvenienced by cancelled flights.  You can fly standby if you’ve already bought a normal ticket and your original flight was canceled, you were bumped from a flight, or you’re hoping to get an earlier flight and bought the right class of ticket. However, it’s no longer a tool to keep in your budget travel arsenal that it once was.  Here’s to you Air Tran.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Holly Riddle

Written by Holly Riddle

BREAKING: USAF F-15C Eagle Fighter Crashes Near Okinawa- Pilot Injured But Safe

Historic B-17 Flying Fortress ‘Aluminum Overcast’ touring across America