When you get your new airline job there will be many uncertainties. On your first day of class, you’ll show up knowing little more than the name of the airline that you are employed by. You probably won’t even know the location of your new base and which aircraft you will fly. Sure, there will be rumors about the options that will be available for your class, but surprises are not at all uncommon. Two or three days into your company indoctrination, you and your classmates will gather in a room and someone responsible for staffing will announce the available base and aircraft options. Each new hire pilot will be asked, in seniority order, where they want to be based and which aircraft they want to fly from the list of what’s available. This is a high anxiety moment for every class. Everyone has an idea of where they want to be based—and where they don’t. For more information on how the seniority system works, read Seniority is Like Compounding Interest here on BogiDope.
Once you’ve been given your base and aircraft assignment, a harried thought process will to begin. Unless you’ve planned exceptionally well and are extremely lucky, your new domicile (also called a “base”) will not be anywhere near where you and your family currently reside. You’ll be left with a choice, one that you’ll be trying to make while trying to digest a huge amount of information about your new company: will you pull up stakes and move your family to an unfamiliar city or will you commute to your new domicile using your unlimited free flight privileges?
Nonrevenue Flight Privileges and Jumpseats
If you’re new to the airline world, the concept of a multistate (or multi time zone) commute may seem odd. In fact, it is a way of life for a sizeable percentage of airline pilots. The reasons vary; some pilots are simply in love with where they live and are willing to sacrifice time and energy (and a little bit of sanity) to stay in that place. Some are waiting for their seniority to reach a level where they can hold the base they prefer to live in. Others simply got stuck; their families got entrenched in particular place and those pilots decided to maintain a semblance of stability by accepting a commute. Commutes come is all shapes and sizes. For some pilots, it’s a short shuttle hop from D.C. to New York that takes less than an hour. For others, the commute is a five hour ride across three time zones to get to work.
Whatever the distance, the mechanics of commuting are relatively straight forward. As an employee of the airline, you will have privileges to fly as a nonrevenue passenger on any flight you choose. This is generally free of charge—a few airlines charge a small yearly fee. You can list for a flight using a special website where you can also view the predicted passenger load. Checking the loads is very important; nonrevenue seats are given out on a space available basis. Every single paying passenger will get on the airplane before you do; it isn’t uncommon to be waiting for a seat ten minutes before the door closes, wondering if you will actually get on the plane.
As a pilot, the jumpseat in the cockpit is also an option for you, even on other airlines. While this might seem like a sure thing, it isn’t; there are a number of factors that determine whether or not the jumpseat will actually be available for your use. Different airlines handle the jumpseat differently; some assign the jumpseat priority based on the time you check in while others assign priority based on seniority. It is possible that you could show up for what appears to be an empty jumpseat, only to find out that an FAA inspector is there to do a line check or that the jumpseat is occupied by another pilot for training purposes. It is possible that the jumpseat has been deferred for maintenance, making it impossible for you to ride. If you are jumpseating on another airline, you’ll be bumped off if a pilot employed by that airline shows up. Some aircraft types, notably Airbus products, have two jumpseats. Many other aircraft (especially regional jets and turboprops) have only one. If you are planning on jumpseating on a regional airline aircraft, weight and balance can sometimes be an issue. Some airlines have a system that allows for you to list for the jumpseat in advance, but it is never really sure thing until you are in the seat with the door shut. If all of this sounds like a chancy proposition to you, you’re right—it is. Always remember that sitting in the jumpseat is ultimately a privilege that is at the discretion of the Captain. It is his or her seat, so courtesy goes a long way towards helping you get to work.
The Dark Side of Commuting
One of the nice things about being an airline pilots is that you generally don’t take your work home with you. You park on the gate, pack your stuff and go home—that’s it. If you choose to commute, you add a new layer of complexity to your life; commuting takes a lot careful planning and attention that will detract from the quality of your time at home.
If you choose to commute, you’ll find that you need to plan ahead. Leaving only one flight to get to work is foolish and risky because flights can and do cancel. Also, no matter how empty the flight looks two days out, they tend to fill up at the last minute; airline revenue planners often put cheap fares on the market to limit the revenue loss on a flight that has few seats sold. There will likely be other nonrevenue passengers that you’ll have to compete with for seats. Weather is something that you’ll need to keep a close eye on; summertime thunderstorms or a winter storm system can turn an easy commute into a nightmare. At a minimum, you’ll have to plan to have at least one backup flight that will get you to work on time in addition to your “plan A.” If your commute requires a connecting flight, the complexity increases by a factor of four. Two flights from your home city means two more as options from your connecting city—that’s a lot of tough planning required to just to get to your job. The hours spent fretting over your ride to work will take away time and energy that you could be devoting to your family.
You’ll need to consider the fatigue factor as well. Getting up early in the morning at home to arrive at work for an evening check in time means that you’ll potentially planning for a 20 hour (or more) day. Even if you can grab a good nap, how alert will you really be when it comes time for that first flight? What about how alert you’ll be on that last leg? If you are crossing time zones to get to work, disrupting your circadian rhythms regularly can have a dramatic effect on your health.
If you choose to commute, there will be ancillary financial costs as well. It is a virtual certainty that you’ll have to come in the night before work on many occasions; there are usually not practical ways to arrive rested and ready for an early morning departure on an overnight flight. Commuting from out of domicile will require you to secure accommodations; this normally isn’t a hotel since that will become very expensive pretty quickly. Most pilots in this situation opt for a crashpad, which is an apartment or house shared by a number of pilots. They normally consist of a basic setup with a living area, small kitchen, a couple of bathrooms and a large number of bunkbeds. You could well end up having a slumber party with eight to ten of your new friends. If you decide to commute, your local Chief Pilot or union representative will be able to point you to some crashpads in the area.
Not getting to work because of a busted commute can happen, and it is something that Chief Pilots tend to take a pretty dim view of. While many airlines have “commuter clauses” in their collective bargaining agreements that grant some leeway if you’ve made a decent effort to get to work, that grace is limited. Airlines thrive on dependability; they have a reasonable expectation that you’ll show up to work on time and fit to fly. If your commute does fall apart, make sure you get crew scheduling in the loop as soon as you can. Giving them a chance to staff the flight with a reserve pilot so that it still goes out on time will keep you in good graces with your boss.
Think About Commuting Very Carefully
Commuting can work, and does for thousands of pilots. If you choose to do it, just make sure you go into that situation with your eyes wide open; commuting comes with very real costs in terms of money, time with your family and your sanity. Ultimately, the choice is yours. Commuting ultimately can cause more complications than it solves, and it is best looked at as a temporary solution to a temporary situation rather than a permanent way of life.