January 8, 2014

Getting to work the hard way - the glamorous life of a commuter.

While passing though the Dallas, Ft. Worth International Airport earlier this week, I ran into a good friend and newly minted airline employee. As a new hire flight attendant at a major airline, Tyler was, like so many before him, awarded New York City as his initial base assignment - commuting became a way of life.

Tyler lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, flies out of the three New York area airports and spends many of his nights on a ratty old couch inside crew ops at New York LaGuardia. He's not alone. Most people are unaware of how poorly compensated new hire pilots and flight attendants really are.  At my first job as an airline pilot, I brought home less than $1,000 a month and qualified for food stamps (which I did not accept) for the first four years on the job.  Pilots and flight attendants alike often don't have the money or the ability to move to their first base assignments, so commuting often becomes the only reasonable choice. It is both a blessing and a curse of the airline industry that its employees can live in one city and work in another, but it's a tough life and space on the couch is often in short supply.

A slightly more dignified option, and a small step up from the couch, is the "crash pad."  These flop houses often contain multiple bunk beds in each room and a single bathroom to serve a dozen or more people. The assumption is that all occupants will never need a place to sleep at the same time, so far more people are allowed to sign up than there are beds. Think Titanic and the lifeboats. They won't be needed, so put a few where everyone can see them and all will be fine. 


One of the worst crash pads I ever stayed in had two bedrooms, one bathroom and a total of four beds to accommodate 14 pilots. I spent a lot of time on the couch or tucked inside a sleeping bag in the corner of the room.

Of course, hotels were an option, but only those with more seniority and a healthier paycheck could consider spending the money on such luxury. Other more creative options included small RV cities like the one located in the employee parking lot at LAX where many commuters spend their nights away from home. Others impose on family and friends, and some even live in their cars. Sounds glamorous, doesn't it?


Couches, chairs and the floor - oh my!

On several occasions, I found myself unable to find an acceptable place to sleep.  Believe it or not, I'm including the couch on that list. On one such night, a snow storm caused massive power failures that drove people from their homes in search of warmth and electricity. Not surprisingly, the power grid around the airport was a high priority for the city, so most of the airport hotels had power. It seemed as if the entire population of the city was staying within a two mile radius of the airport that night. The nearest hotel room I could find was over an hour away and I had no way to get there. Unable to find anything better, the crew lounge was littered with pilots and flight attendants sleeping on couches, chairs and wherever else they could find a place to shut their eyes. Ops was so crowded that night that it was even difficult to find space on the floor large enough to lay completely flat.

That was the night I decided to purchase a blow up bed. I thought the idea was genius - and to be honest, it was! As soon as I got home, I looked around and happened upon a blow up bed in a backpack. I could carry this thing anywhere and have a bed whenever and wherever I needed it. I didn't need a place to sleep very often, so hotels were my bed of choice, but the blow up bed proved to be invaluable on those unexpected nights in the crew lounge.

The funny thing about the blow up bed is that it almost got me arrested. Yes, feel free to re-read that sentence, but a blow up bed in a back pack almost got me thrown in jail. I purchased the darn thing in my home town with the intent of carrying it through security as carry-on baggage.  Unfortunately, I had not removed the bed from its original packaging and the TSA scanners mistook the tightly packed plastic as some sort of explosive. Apparently, two D cell batteries with wires connected to some sort of motor resembled the remaining ingredients of something really dangerous and before I knew what was happening, I was locked in a room with two angry guys carrying guns. By the way, if you must use the words "blow" and "up" in the same sentence while standing at airport security, use them very carefully and be prepared for delay.

Of course the whole thing was quickly cleared up, but it's only comical in hind sight.

My worst commute...

I have commuted four times in my career, the first time as a freight pilot while living in Dallas, Texas and flying out of Corpus Christi. In a two leg commute, I would jumpseat from Dallas Love Field to Corpus Christi on Monday afternoon and fly night freight on Monday through Thursday night. Four nights a week, I left Corpus at 8pm and flew to San Antonio, Dallas and Austin before one final approach and landing at Corpus around 6am. I had a four hour layover in Dallas each night, during which I would drive home, spend a couple hours in bed with my wife, then go back to work. It was far from ideal, but I was "paying my dues."

My second commute was from my home in Dallas to a regional airline job in Atlanta, Georgia. That commute was especially nasty because the airline didn't have jumpseat privileges on any other airline. While making a mere $14,000 per year, I had to purchase a $90 pass to get to and from work. Sometimes I stayed in Atlanta because I couldn't afford to come home.  I actually did this commute three times. First as a new hire and two more times after getting displaced to Atlanta for short temporary duty assignments. It was not pleasant.

The next opportunity I had to perfect the art of commuting came with my first job at a major airline and involved traveling from my home in Dallas to a new job as a Boeing 727 Flight Engineer in Miami, Florida. Luckily, that commute only lasted three months before I was back at home swearing I would never commute again. I learned a lesson on that one - never say never.

My fourth commute was once again from my home in Dallas, this time after getting displaced from DFW to an assignment in Saint Louis that was supposed to last a year and turned into a four year saga. At the time, almost all of our STL based first offices commuted. The flights were all full and the jumpseats were few and far between.

The Saint Louis commute was probably the hardest of all and got off to the roughest start. The afternoon
before my first trip out of STL, I noticed a severe line of thunderstorms moving toward the Dallas area. A single line of strong storms had the potential to wreak havoc on our operations and I didn't want to be late for my first day at a new base, so I elected to make the trip to St. Louis a day early. I decided I could use the extra time to familiarize myself with a new airport and shake hands with my new boss, but by the time I got to the airport there were only three flights left. I got bumped off the first two and for reasons unknown, the final flight of the night cancelled.

Over the next hour, storms started to impact the area and the flight information boards in the terminal began to list cancelled flight after cancelled flight. I had an afternoon sign in the next day, but within the span of about 5 minutes, all three of my backup flights landed squarely on the growing list of cancellations.

Honestly, as I recall this story, I can't imagine why I didn't just call crew schedule to inform them I had tried by best and failed. We had a commuter policy in place that would have kept me out of the chief pilot's office, but I decided not to give up. I sat at a computer inside pilot ops and checked flight after flight until I finally found what I thought might work.

I took a delayed flight from Dallas to Tulsa, Oklahoma that landed around 2am, couldn't find a hotel room with any vacancy, and spent the night on a couch at the airport. Not that a hotel would have been worth the money as I caught a flight on another airline that left Tulsa at 7am and landed in St. Louis an hour and ten minutes later. I was tired, frustrated and seriously concerned that my experience that night was a precursor of things to come. Thankfully that was as bad as it ever got, but four years later I finally got the transfer back to Dallas and once again proclaimed that I would never commute again.

Hopefully it will stick this time - I don't think I could take another night on the couch.

11 comments:

  1. you scare me...I am trying to mentally prepare myself for Steve's base closing, which means us commuting or moving. What is worse?

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    1. Hi Joanna. I'm so sorry to hear Steve's base is closing. I know from experience how much stress that adds to an already stressful job and family life. This is a personal decision you guys will have to make on your own, but I always commuted because I knew I could eventually get based at home...it would just take some time. If my base closed and I thought I would be staying with that airline long term, I would probably move. The extra time away from home and the stress of commuting is not something that suits me. I don't have the stomach for it.

      I wish you all the best. Email me privately if there's anything I can do to help.

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    2. I should clarify...it isn't closing. It is very much open and operating...but, we anticipate it closing in the next couple years. We are taking the approach of "prepare for the worst, hope for the best"

      He has ever intention of retiring with this airline. I would hate to move, but I would hate for him to commute. And this is why I/we are taking years to think about all these things.

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  2. You have to be crazy to commute. Oh, wait a sec...

    Great read.

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  3. Wow... Thanks for sharing your commute stories. Definitely the pilot/crew life for sure.. One thing is for certain to which you pointed out.. Pilots are surely NOT exempt from security despite what many people, especially non-av people, say..

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  4. That really sounds like a tough time.

    It is leaving me to think how dangerous it can be for airlines to leave their crew on the edge of mental and physical exhaustion ...

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    1. I couldn't agree more and that's exactly why I would not choose to make a career of commuting. Some people are better at it than others, but a commuting pilot is rarely as rested and prepared for duty as the one who lives a short drive from the airport.

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  5. I really enjoy this blog. I’m a passenger, not a pilot, but an extremely, extremely similar event happened to me back in the mid ‘90’s.

    There was a big article in the San Diego Union Tribune describing how, for the first time, the new scanners would recognize plastic explosives. As it happened, I was back in San Diego over spring break visiting family, which coincided with my birthday. My brother-in-law and I have a longstanding tradition of giving each other gag gifts, and that year I received a toy punching bag; the inflatable kind. As this was given to me at the last minute, I placed it in my carry-on baggage. To the scanner, the deflated and compressed gob of plastic appeared as molecules of a similar kind and density as plastic explosives and so appeared as such on the screener’s screen. In a highly agitated voice, she said “What’s this in here?” to which I replied without thinking “Oh, it’s that blow up thing.” She instantly hit the panic button and in about five seconds there were two guys with hands over their guns – not weapons drawn but very ready. I was able to de-escalate the situation by desperately explaining that it was a plastic toy. It’s funny now.

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  6. Wow Brad - the side of pilots that we don't usually hear about!! Although - there are times when we regular travelers are on our flight - and - some pilot in uniform gets on to travel the same place we are going to - we don't always think of commuting.

    Thanks for the great read!!!

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  7. Oh, boy, do I sympathize! My worst was renting a hotel room with a dozen other pilots outside of Dulles. Never again!

    Here's a video I shared on my "Top 10 Downers of an Airline Career" post last month. It's an "exposé" on crash pads done by 20/20. A little sensationalistic...but oh so real as we all know!

    The blow up "doll" story...priceless!

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  8. Oops, here's the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MfEKAl5A--0

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