Do you remember this guy? For long-ago young Emet, Woodsy was the epitome of awesome, and his admonition was witty and cool. And yet…today I drive cars, live in a larger house than is strictly necessary, and fly big jets that burn thousands of pounds of Jet-A every hour. Past-me might be disappointed at my brash disregard of Woodsy’s catchy admonition.
This illustrates a principle that I think applies even further: we humans probably aren’t as good at making the noble, honorable choice as we’d like to think. Commuting to your airline job works the same way. If you read my recent series about choosing an airline to work for (Airline Comparison – Part 1), I hope you caught the resounding theme of: live in base! Or, as Woodsy might say: Give a Hoot! Don’t Commute!
Don’t get me wrong, having the ability to commute is an amazing benefit in our profession. What other job lets you hold a reasonably high-paying, easy-to-do job while living almost anywhere on the planet? I commute because it gives my wife the ability to have an outstanding job, and for my kids to go to great schools, without forcing me to take a meaningless, soul-crushing desk job on the tertiary-adjunct MAJCOM staff at PC Load Letter Air Force Base. (Dear USAF, if you’re still wondering why people choose the airlines over you….)
I worry that sometimes I stray dangerously close to whitewashing the challenges of airline life and making things look at little too nice though. (In my defense, it mostly happens without trying…it really is that nice.) In the interest of giving you an honest picture, Part 1 of this series is going to try to explain why commuting is a terrible idea. If, as a pilot, you know that you’re far smarter than I am and are going to ignore my advice and commute anyway, Parts 2 and Part 3 will look at reasons why commuting might be worth it, and some strategies for making the best of that commute.
So, lest there be any doubt, please understand that commuting is not fun!
I’ve started writing this at 4:53 am on a Thursday. I woke up more than 90 minutes ago. I could have slept an extra hour, but I wasn’t on the jumpseat booking system the moment it started taking reservations for today so this was the only flight I could list on that got me to work on time. As a result, I’ll have to sit around ATL for a solid two hours before I actually start flying…once I finally get to that pilot lounge. From that point, my workday will include three legs and not end until 8:24 pm.
I don’t always schedule myself for such ridiculous workdays, and we’ll talk about strategies for surviving such masochistic schedules later, but days like this are inevitable for commuters. It would not be unreasonable to treat your commuting legs like unpaid deadheads and calculate that they decrease your effective hourly pay…at least one leg on each end of each trip.
If you think that having to take the first flight out to get to work is bad, consider that my commute (TPA-ATL) is surprisingly easy. As long as I plan ahead, I’m usually able to book more convenient flights to work. There are at least a dozen flights a day to ATL, and most of those are A321s or B757s with two jumpseats each. Although I sometimes have to take an inconvenient flight, I can almost always book the jumpseat on a Delta mainline aircraft.
That’s important! As a Delta pilot, I get priority on mainline Delta jets. I can reserve my jumpseat in advance, and as long as I’m in the system my seat is virtually guaranteed. Thankfully, jumpseats are first-come/first-served at my company, rather than going by seniority like most other things in our profession. I can’t be bumped off the seat by a more senior pilot.
That said, I mentioned that my listing is only “virtually” guaranteed because I can still be bumped. If the FAA shows up and decides to conduct an impromptu inspection (or just take a convenient, free flight) I’m screwed. If the company decides to send a Line Check Airman to give a checkride, I’m screwed. If the Captain (rightfully) thinks I’m too ugly to be on her flight deck and refuses to let me on her jet, I’m screwed.
And that’s for a “lucky” pilot with an “easy” commute. It could be a lot worse. I could still be living in the Florida panhandle where half the Navy, most of AFSOC, and a bunch of F-15/F-22 pilots fight over a relatively limited selection of jumpseats every day.
I could also live somewhere with little or no Delta mainline service. Then, I’d have to beg and plead for rides on regional jets (RJs) or with Other Air Lines (OAL.) There’s a (separate) system where I can list for jumpseats on those aircraft in advance, but I have much lower priority on those airlines. A junior RJ FO would automatically bump me off an RJ jumpseat. A Southwest pilot would automatically bump me off her jumpseat. As you see, commuting from a city with little or no mainline service from your company just increases the pain. (In their defense, most Southwest pilots I know are kind enough that they’d try to find a way to get me on their jet. Actually, the same goes for almost any pilot. I know that if I have a nonrev seat and someone else needs to get on, I’ll take a less comfortable jumpseat every time. What goes around, right?)
So, what happens if you can’t book a jumpseat in advance or you get bumped? You can still list for free as a regular non-revenue (“nonrev,” aka: standby) passenger. Sometimes that may work, but modern technology and corporate management practices have made it increasingly difficult to nonrev on domestic flights. There’s no guarantee you’ll get on the aircraft.
“Okay Emet, we get it already. You may not even be able to get on an aircraft to get to work. What then? Do you just get fired?”
My union and my company agreed to a generous Unable to Commute (UTC) policy, and enshrined that policy in our contract. If I listed for a jumpseat, or even a regular nonrev seat, and I made it to the gate in time for the flight, and there is at least one backup flight that could also get me to work in time, I’m safe. If I met all these criteria, but couldn’t get on my primary flight, I just call scheduling. They can then
- Buy me a ticket,
- Assign someone else to my trip and send me home (without pay, but also without me being in any trouble,) or
- Assign someone else to part of my trip and deadhead me to meet my trip somewhere along the line.
Most pilots I know at other airlines say they have similar policies.
Whew! Relief, right?
Yes…except that as pilots we’ve been conditioned very carefully over our careers. We want to be where we’re supposed to be, on time. We feel dirty if we’re late or out of position for anything. We also like money, a lot. I averaged more than $1000/day in total compensation during my second year at a major airline. Missing one day is bad enough, but most of my trips are 4 days long. Missing even one trip could cost me a lot of money!
No pilot wants to lose that kind of money by exercising the UTC policy, plus the policy actually does have some teeth. If you’re identified as a habitual abuser, you get to have a “chat” with a chief pilot about commuting strategies. Uh, no thanks.
Given these facts, we pilots put immense pressure on ourselves to get to work on time without having to exercise the UTC option:
“If one backup is good, why not 2…or 4…or 6?”
“I’ll just hang out in the pilot lounge for six hours before work.”
“The jumpseats are all booked and the system already shows that all flights are overbooked? No problem, I’ll just drive several hours to get to my sign-in airport!”
“Sorry I can’t go to dinner with the family babe, I have to leave tonight while there are still jumpseats available because I won’t be able to get on one tomorrow. Yes, I’ll have to pay for a hotel tonight, but it’s only money, right?”
These all sound ridiculous given the availability of the UTC policy, don’t they? If you commute you’ll find yourself saying some or all of them anyway. Ask any commuter. While hundreds (probably thousands) of pilots make this work every day, it’s a lot of extra stress in your life…stress that absolutely does not need to be there.
Oh, and that handy UTC policy? There’s no such thing for getting home. In a worst-case scenario, you could easily find yourself forced to pay for yet another hotel on the back-end of your trip so that you can miss out on at least an extra half-day with your family. (Been there, done that.)
This is all bad enough for line holders who know their schedule ahead of time, but it’s even worse if you’re on reserve. Depending on how your company works, your reserve vulnerability may start at 0001 hours…meaning you have to get to your base the night before. (In many cases, you have to arrive a day early if your vulnerability start time is anywhere before about 9:00 am because there won’t be time to get to the airport and catch a flight to your base if you get called in.) That’s an extra night away from home in a hotel or crash pad.
It’s not so bad though, right? You’ll still be flying, right? On some fleets, yes. You’ll be flying every single day on reserve and you’ll be worn out by the end of the month. However, in some categories at some companies, you might barely ever get used. While it’s sort of nice to get paid to sit around, it’s not that nice if you’re not at home. It gets boring. It costs you money to stay somewhere mediocre while FOs who are flying stay in nice hotels covered by the company drinking beers covered by the Captain. You can’t just crack your own (not free) beer while you sit around, because you frequently have to be ready to fly within 2 hours.
I’ve known pilots who had trouble consolidating because they flew so little on reserve. Consolidation is an FAA requirement to get 100 hours on your aircraft within 120 days of your check ride. Think about that…spending 4 months commuting to reserve and not even being able to get 100 hours of flying. You’d better invest in some eye protection or else you might accidentally gouge something out.
Speaking of crash pads…there’s a reason they aren’t called “private luxury accommodations.” In case you’re not familiar, a crash pad is a cheap alternative to a hotel for commuters. An enterprising property owner crams a bunch of bunk beds into a house or condo and rents the place out to commuting pilots. The hope is that you’ll only be there for one night at a time, right before and/or after a multi-day trip. At some places, unbeknownst to you as a tenant, this lets them charge rent to more pilots than they have beds, relying on chance to hope that they’ll never end up over-booked. Given that expectation, they usually only charge a few hundred dollars a month. Great deal, right?
As long as that scheduling assumption holds true, staying there can be reasonably comfortable. It’s quiet and there’s enough space for everyone. However, that’s not always the case. My NYC crash pad had 10 beds in 2 bedrooms, 1 bathroom, a living room, and a kitchen. NYC is the junior base for several airlines, so we had many pilots on reserve staying multiple nights in a row. It eventually got a bit crowded for my taste. It’s reminiscent of being deployed and trapped in the squadron common room all day. The food’s better, the internet’s faster, and there aren’t any uniform-nazis making you wear closed-toed shoes to the latrine, but it’s still not a great way to spend a week not flying.
So, commuting adds a lot of unwanted and unnecessary stress to your life. Even if you have a no-jeopardy UTC policy, you could still lose a lot of money if you can’t get to work for a trip. Commuting can absolutely cost you an extra day away from home on each end of a trip. That’s less time with your family and it effectively reduces your hourly/daily pay. Depending on your strategy, you may use a crash pad. While not terrible, it’s never going to be your favorite place to hang out. Are we all on the same page so far? Good, because it only gets worse from here.
Commuting also has high opportunity costs.
If you live in base, you’re close enough to the airport to pick up last-minute trips for premium pay. As a commuter, I didn’t get a single day of premium pay during my second year. It’s too bad because just one of those days would have paid somewhere around $2000 each! It’s possible to chase premium pay as a commuter, but it’ll mean spending a lot of extra days away from home. That’s only a viable option if you’re single or you want to become single in the near future.
Commuting also makes it difficult to work as a simulator instructor. Our instructors get paid B777 pay (ie. the highest pilot pay in the company) no matter what aircraft they’re on. They have a great deal of control over their schedules, and they get to sleep at home every night. It’s possible to commute as an instructor, but you’re going to be staying in a hotel or a crash pad. It can end up being a lot of nights away from home. It’s definitely not ideal.
My company also has a lot of interesting jobs in management. The work is engaging and challenging, the jobs pay very well, you still get to fly trips occasionally to keep things fun, and you get to have a direct impact on a worldwide operation. But…if you want to do it you generally need to be able to show up at company HQ five days a week, most weeks. These are opportunities that a commuter probably just can’t take advantage of. Maybe you don’t want those opportunities right now, but you might at least want to have the choice a few years from now.
If you have to commute, you probably only have one or two hubs to choose from. Want to fly an aircraft not based at those hubs…maybe a widebody that does cushy trips to Europe or Asia? Too bad! If you want to take advantage of that opportunity you’ll be stuck with a 2-leg commute. Remember our discussion about adding unnecessary stress to your life? The 2-leg commute more than doubles that stress. You might also be stuck commuting to a very senior base where you’ll end up on reserve or with bad-deal trips for years.
Wow. More stress. More days away from home…spent at crash pads. Effectively less pay. Missed opportunities to earn premium pay or pursue interesting jobs. Can you see now why commuting really stinks? Woodsy is on to something when he says “Give a Hoot! Don’t Commute!” When you’re choosing an airline to work for, you cannot do anything more important than finding a company with a major hub in a place where you want to live.
“Uh, yes, Emet. You commute. Why the raging, whiny hypocrisy?”
Thank you, dear pilots, for continuing to point out my numerous shortcomings! Although commuting is almost always a bad idea, there are some reasons why it might still be worth doing. We’ll look at those in Part 2 of this series before looking at some strategies to optimize commuting life in Part 3. Stay tuned.
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