It can be a curse or a blessing, depending on your point of view, the best thing in the world or the worst. One of the benefits of working as an airline pilot—or as a pilot for large corporate operators such as NetJets—is the ability to live in almost any locale you wish while commuting to your base. For companies like NetJets, such a perk truly is a perk, because the company buys you a positive space ticket to and from work, so you travel with all of the rights and privileges of a regular passenger.
Airline pilots that commute, however, almost never get such treatment. For example, I live just outside of Cincinnati, on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River. My house is but a nine-minute drive from the employee parking lot at CVG. For most of the last eight years, it was an ideal situation, as I could leave my house thirty minutes before my check-in time and walk in with time to spare. No more. I am now based in New York, at JFK to be exact. CVG is still a nine minute drive away, but work is, at best, three hours from my house if all goes well.
It never dawned on me that Delta’s second largest hub would be gutted. Further, the cost of living in the Midwest, especially compared to my hometown of Annapolis, Maryland, is very low. Moving to Cincinnati when my wife and I did so made perfect sense, especially since I had a new baby I wanted to see as much as possible. I now find myself commuting to New York, and it is a challenge for all of us.
Here’s what commuting entails. Frequently, I have to travel on a day off in order to make an early morning report time the next day. Bidding these types of trips allows me to commute home on the day the trip ends, which is my preference. I also like to work early in the day versus starting what could be a sixteen hour day some time after lunch. I usually have a pretty good idea what flights I will be using before the month even starts, but schedules can and do change, especially seasonally; summers are tough for almost everyone, and the spring break season for pilots living in or commuting to Florida can be brutal. I usually check the schedule two days ahead of time to see what the loads and flight times look like. In my case, I have the option of also flying to LaGuardia (LGA), which is a huge advantage. Once I know my flight options, I check the weather to see if I will need to two-leg it through another city or go up earlier than normal. A great website for general flight options is passrider.com.
As a non-revenue passenger, the wise choice—and in some cases, the requirement—is to show up an hour before departure time. This is where the “wasted time” part of commuting comes in to play. I am also required to try at least two flights, but they can be to (or through) two different airports. I almost always fly direct, but I’ve also gone through Baltimore and Detroit. Some airlines don’t have a very friendly commuter policy. Fortunately, mine does. I have to try two flights, and if I can’t make it, I coordinate with the company when and where I will pick up the balance of my trip. I don’t get paid for what I miss, but I face no disciplinary actions either. I’ve yet to need to use the clause, but only because my seniority usually gets me on the flight of my choosing. New pilots and flight attendants routinely miss flights, and subsequently, pay.
If you saw the PBS special “Flying Cheap,” you got a nice introduction to the concept of the “crash pad,” that is an apartment with as many beds crammed in as possible. Pilots pay a monthly fee for the right to use a bed (New York starts at around $250, not including transportation). The upside is that you have a place to go. The downside is that you owe that money every month, even if you don’t use it. You will also be responsible for your own laundry, and you will be sharing a room with a number of other people that you may or may not get along with or even know. Personally, I’ve never needed a crash pad, and I doubt I would use one. In my case, I take advantage of our crew rate at our regular hotel, or pay $45 a night to stay in a private residence. Some pilots also sleep in the crew lounge, which is far more common than most people realize, but the fact is that low-paid pilots often have no choice.
Some pilots have commuted their whole careers. This is my third time doing it, and it looks like it will be a long stretch for me. My family is very happy where we live, and I refuse to chase domiciles (I will be based in Detroit starting in September). The only thing that would drive me to move at this point would be if I had to start crossing time zones.
The whole process of catching a flight works in reverse for going home, which is a different kind of anxiety. Some pilots simply don’t have the patience or flexibility to commute. For others, it’s simply a matter of disliking your domicile city more than liking your hometown. For others still, it’s simply the best compromise that could be reached with a spouse or children or even self. But commuting is an option, and the most important thing to remember is that it is indeed a privilege, not a right.