The Pains and Benefits of Commuting
For many, a great thing about being an airline pilot is the schedule flexibility. You often have multiple consecutive days off with no work responsibilities. This is different from other jobs where you may have to do work at home, monitor a phone or even just be stressed about work. Often, we just park the airplane, secure everything and head home. Not thinking much about work again until we are ready to start getting ready for work the next time. Of course, this is balanced by having to be away from home on holidays, birthdays and other special dates. As with anything, there is good and bad. In addition to our schedule one other benefit is the ability to live almost anywhere we want. For many pilots, they fly to work rather than drive. This gives them the freedom to live where they want and take a job thousands of miles from home, take an earlier upgrade or be at a base where they can be more senior or upgrade faster. Of course, commuting has its goods and bads as well.
First, let’s make sure we all know what we’re talking about. Most normal employees drive, train or take some other mass transit to work. For pilots, even that often isn’t “normal.” When go to work 4-5 times per month (if you work multi-day trips), it can make more sense if you want to have to drive further to live someplace nicer. Your friends in 9-5 jobs would probably flip out if they had to drive 2-3 hours to work, yet some pilots do that regularly. Other pilots want to live further away and they will fly to work. A benefit called jumpseating, allowing pilots privileges to travel on other airlines, can help make this easier. Other pilots prefer to commute on their own airline. This lets them live almost anywhere they want, depending on what they’re willing to put up with.
This last part is important. Commuting varies widely and it’s tough to compare one commute to another. I once knew a pilot who drove 3 hours to Phoenix to then fly to New York to work. Others will take a short flight to work, for example NY to DC where there are frequent flights on multiple airlines. Some take more than one flight to get to work. There is no one type of commuting. Depending on what you’re trying to do, where you’re trying to live and work determines what your commute can look like. Let’s take a look at some to things that go into that decision and why pilots decide to commute.
Live Where You Want – For a lot of reasons, many of us don’t want to live and work in the same area. Maybe you like to surf and you aren’t going to get to do much of that in Chicago. For many pilots, they have families and don’t want to change their kids’ school or take their spouses away from family, friends and other support systems. For some pilots, their spouse has a job that the family doesn’t want to give up or change and living somewhere away from the pilot’s base allows both parents to have the careers that they want. In a few cases, it’s a two-airline family and both can’t live where they work because they can’t work in the same place. If one or both are willing to commute they can both keep their careers.
There are as many reasons as there are places to live and regardless of the reason, you have options. For some of the younger pilots and, more often, flight attendants, it may be that you don’t really want to live anywhere and want to travel on your days off. That’s an option too.
Related to this, before we started at whatever airline we are at we had lives. We may have lived in a place we really liked or we have settled our family. For some, they may have Reserve or National Guard posts there. Basically, unlike other jobs, where we work is not as tied to where we live and that gives us a lot of flexibility.
- Cheaper Cost of Living – This is implicit in living where you want but it’s worth calling out. Many pilots live a much higher quality of life than if they lived and worked in the same city. There are a lot of pilots based in New York, Los Angeles or any number of expensive, inconvenient cities. By commuting you can twice the house for half the money. Commuting allows you the option to live in an area with cheaper real estate, lower taxes or any combination that will save you money meaning that you need to work less for the same benefit. This is why you’ll see a lot of pilots in states with no income take. Pilots tend to be high wage earners (at least eventually) and living in a place with a lower cost of living can really help you preserve some of that income. Take a look here and you can see the differences that taxes can make on your income.
- Have More Flexibility For Seniority – Most airlines have bases where certain aircraft types are based. Similarly, often one base or another has more seniority. It can be helpful to transfer to a base where you’ll have more seniority (which means more schedule choices) or to a different aircraft with different schedules, overnights, etc. Being willing to commute makes this easier. It would stink having to move every time you changed bases and for many of us we just wouldn’t do it. Changing which flights you take to work makes it much easier.
These are probably the biggest reasons that pilots will commute. As you might imagine, it’s often a combination of these. There are exceptions, but most of the pilot bases are in large, expensive cities. Many of us started a family somewhere other than where we are based today, sometimes around a previous flying job, and we don’t want to move our family or ourselves for a new job. The airline industry is fickle and we often have a reason to change bases. Maybe it’s because of a merger, shutdown, changes in the market whatever. For many pilots, they laid claim to a place and their job changed location but they didn’t. Commuting allowed them that option.
It’s great to be able to live where you want, but you definitely make some tradeoffs. Remember that for many pilots the tradeoffs aren’t even a consideration because of the opportunity that commuting allows them. Other pilots can’t even imaging flying to work. The good news is that we get to make that choice.
- Fewer Effective Days Off – Of course, commuters don’t have different opportunities for schedules than their non-commuters. Many of our schedules, though, start early or finish late (or do both). For someone who drives to work, they can leave their house whenever they need to get to work. A commuter is tied to an airline schedule to get them to work. So, they need to have a flight that will get them to work in time to show up in time and be properly rested for work. If you’re starting early in the morning, this may mean that you have to come in the night before, especially when there’s bad weather. Commuters encounter the delays, cancellations and all the other pains of travelers. This often means that they may need to be in their base city much earlier than when their trip starts. On the back-end of a trip, they may finish too late to catch a flight home. Then they have to spend an extra night in their base city before their next flight.
All this translates into extra time away from home. Since you can obviously only leave to and from home when your commuting flights are scheduled, you are tied to their schedules. They may show the same number of days off on their schedule but this extra time in commuting translates into fewer effective days off because they’re still trying to get to and from work.
- Less Flexibility in Bidding for Schedules – Similarly, when a trip may mean an extra day or two away from home, you are less likely to want to fly extra, even when that could mean extra pay for the trip. You may not be able to switch trips around for trips that pay more or have better days off because you have to worry about when your commute will let you. All of this adds up to less schedule flexibility than if you were driving to work. It means you may have to work more weekends, or different trips than you’d like to because they are “commutable” which means let you commute to work on the same day as the trip starts and leave on the same day as you finish. This limits your pool of potential flying.
- Lifestyle – Commuting can be a tougher lifestyle. Many pilots stay in a “crashpad” which is often a house or apartment with a lot of bunk beds, on nights before or after a trip. Many have beds for 15-20 or more. In some cases, depending on what’s available and how cheap you are, they may even “hotbunk” which means that you take any empty bed. It’s probably more common to have an assigned bed, with those who have been there longer fighting for a coveted bottom bunk spot. Some of them aren’t well run or the other occupants don’t show the respect to their brethren that you’d like, so you come in to dirty dishes, dirty floors and bathrooms, you get the idea.
Sometimes, it’s empty with just you or one or two others in the crashpad. Other times it’s full, and loud with people coming and going at all hours. While it can definitely be fun hanging out with everyone, catching up and sharing the latest airline rumors, it can also be a tough lifestyle, especially if you thought you’d left dorm life behind.
Basically, the trade-off can be summed up as commuting can make for a more comfortable homelife but is more stressful during work hours (including getting to and from work.) There are definitely tradeoffs and it’s a very personal decision driven by the pilot’s personal needs and those of their family. It’s one of the biggest benefits of airline schedules. We can literally live all over the world. There are pilots living on other continents, in other states and many other great and wonderful places. They can keep their family where they want to live or engage in great hobbies or other side activities. It opens up a world of opportunities.
Of course, all this comes at a cost in lifestyle and stress. For each of us, we get to make that choice.