Airline Pilots Who Commute
Many airline pilots travel thousands of miles, commuting to their flights.
If I told you that there were professionals living in one state—New York, for example—who traveled to California just to begin the workday, would you believe me? How about someone who lives in Bangkok but travels to Newark to start her job? It’s hard to fathom, but thousands of airline pilots crisscross the planet every day to get to their assigned domicile, or base of operations.
The majority of commuting pilots choose this lifestyle for family or economic reasons. For others, the choice of domicile is a matter of seniority. When pilots first come on board, they are placed at the bottom of the seniority list and assigned to the domicile where the airline needs them the most. After a while (the duration depends on turnover rates), pilots can bid for reassignment to a base closer to home. But if no base exists nearby, they are forced to commute. The only other alternative is to uproot their families, leave their communities behind, and move to that domicile.
Most junior bases for the major airlines are located in high-cost cities along both U.S. coasts. Junior pilots who earn entry-level salaries often have a very difficult time making ends meet in these places and may find themselves forced to live with multiple roommates. Compensation at regional airlines is even lower, forcing many pilots not only to commute but also to live in cramped, overcrowded rooms called crash pads. These houses, apartments or condos where pilots can sleep, shower and change are located close to the airport. A pilot frequently has to fly in the night before a trip so he can be in position for an early departure the next morning, which means even more time away from home.
There can be as many as 25 pilots sharing living quarters designed for six. If a pilot misses her flight home after a flying assignment, she can go to the crash pad to sleep and be ready to catch the first flight back the next day.
Crash-pad living is not glamorous. Some places have bunk beds stacked to the ceiling, with six to eight beds to a room. The rooms may be empty or filled to capacity with loudly snoring bodies, depending on flight schedules and luck of the draw. This isn’t a five-star hotel, but at least the price reflects that. The typical crash pad costs anywhere from $50 to $500 per month, depending on how many other commuters have committed to a contract.
Once a pilot accepts his fate as a temporary or permanent commuter, he needs to have a plan to get from his home to his domicile in plenty of time to make his assigned trip. This often requires pilots to pick a flight that, if canceled, has at least one backup flight. Most U.S. airlines have reciprocal jump seat agreements that allow a guest pilot to ride in the cockpit jump seat free of charge if there are no other seats left in the cabin. If the flight isn’t full, most airlines will accept as many commuters as there are available seats.
Most of the time, pilot commuters are happy to take a seat in the back—regardless of the location of that seat— because some jump seats are very small. Depending on the size of the aircraft and where the pilot winds up sitting, this free ride can be either very comfortable or completely miserable.
In an industry with such stringent rest rules, crash pads are a necessary evil. It’s the professional responsibility of each individual pilot to ensure that she is well rested before climbing into the cockpit of a commercial airliner.
Stress Test: A Memorable Commute
Commuting may result in extreme stress for pilots. I commuted for a year early in my career and would never voluntarily do it again. My commute was probably one of the easiest, considering the number of daily flights between LAX and SFO, but it still wasn’t any fun. One memorable commute stands out above all the others.
I was living in Southern California and scheduled to fly an aircraft from San Francisco to Paris later that afternoon. Commonly enough for San Francisco, the weather was marginal, causing ground stops at many of the airports serving flights into the city. As the minutes ticked by, my stress level began to climb. Finally, the pilots received a release by Air Traffic Control (ATC) from the ground stop, and we taxied to the runway for takeoff. I had just begun to relax when, almost as quickly, the spooling engines became idle and we taxied clear of the runway. An engine warning light had illuminated in the cockpit, forcing the pilots to abort the takeoff. The flight was subsequently canceled, and many of the passengers scrambled to change their flights for later that morning. About half of us wound up sprinting to a Reno Air flight. Fortunately, there were no other commuting pilots to compete with, so I got the jumpseat for the ride up to San Francisco.
Once airborne, I was sure I would make it on time—then, about 30 miles south of SFO, ATC issued instructions for us to enter a holding pattern. Fuel was not an issue, but time certainly was. I kept looking at my watch, wondering what kind of disciplinary action would await me for being late. But as luck would have it, we landed with just enough time for me to bypass operations and go directly to the aircraft to begin my flight preparation. Even though I made it in the end, the stress of the experience felt like it took weeks off my life. Lesson learned: Leave extra early and avoid the stress.