Factors in Fatigue

Extreme Commutes Grow Longer in Air Industry

Published: June 11, 2006

Think your commute is bad? Try Wichita to New York, Vancouver to Dallas or Panama to Miami.

Misty Keasler for The New York Times

Ed Martin, a flight attendant, lives in Vancouver but works out of Dallas, where he stays at Motel 6.

For pilots and flight attendants, those commutes aren't simply routine, they are longstanding matters of choice, supported by two of the decades-old perks that make working for an airline special: they can hitch a free ride on almost any airline with an empty seat and they usually only have to work 15 to 18 days a month, making it easy for them to live anywhere they want.

But nowadays, they are finding it harder to get to work, because planes are so full.

"Sometimes it takes me two days," said Jason Miller, 36, who is an Airbus 320 captain for JetBlue Airways.

Mr. Miller's typical commute to get to work: up at 4 a.m. in his Wichita, Kan., home; on a 6 a.m. flight to any middle-of-the-country hub (like Dallas, Chicago or Denver); then hoping for a seat on an immediate connecting flight to Kennedy International Airport in New York, where he is based.

"It's hit or miss," Mr. Miller said. "I go through every conceivable hub known to man."

After he lands at Kennedy, he sleeps all afternoon and evening, then rises to report to work at 11 p.m. for a late flight to the West Coast. Like many pilots and flight attendants who fly out of New York, he shares a small apartment, known as a crash pad, near Kennedy Airport.

Mr. Miller signs up to pilot red-eye flights because he can typically finish a multiday trip at sunrise in New York and then begin his trek home. "It makes my commuting easier," he said. "It gives me all day to work it out."

At home, Mr. Miller red-eyes, too. "I clean the house late at night, or whatever," he said. "I'm a freak."

For commercial flight crews in the U.S., commuting to work can be a job in itself. With airlines cutting back on flights and more jets flying at capacity, professional pilots and crew who need a ride to work are finding it tough. "Sometimes it takes me two days," Jason Miller, an Airbus 320 captain for JetBlue Airways, told The New York Times. Miller lives in Wichita but is based out of New York. Some crew members spend frequent nights away from home sleeping in the airport and eating in the food court. Commuting is not always by choice -- some workers were transferred after nearby operations closed, or have moved to less expensive areas to save for retirement, not trusting their pension plans. But the droves of very light jets headed for the market could be just what they need. The business model for VLJ air-taxi services aims to help people get from point to point quickly and efficiently. Seems tailor-made for the weary airline commuter. The Eclipse jet is scheduled to be certified by the end of this month, so soon we'll be seeing the air-taxi concept in action.

Not quite. The ranks of these extreme commuters appear to be growing it is already in the tens of thousands as financially struggling airlines trim their flight schedules. Six big airlines have reduced their combined fleets by 700 airplanes since June 30, 2001.

Most airline employees fly free in unsold seats or in jump seats in the cabin or cockpit, on their own airline or others. But with domestic flights averaging about 80 percent full meaning that well-traveled routes at popular times are completely full more airline workers are competing for far fewer empty seats.

Airlines are also reducing the number of airports they base their flight crews at. With fewer airports in a route network to call their home base, employees face a choice: either move near a more heavily traveled airport, or become commuters.

As a subculture, commuters feel misunderstood. "My mother comes home to the same house every night," said Bridget Drago, 27, an American Airlines flight attendant who lives in Denver and flies out of LaGuardia Airport in New York.

"I complain about money and she says, 'you need to work more.' But if I worked more, I might lose my sanity. I need time at home," Ms. Drago said in a telephone interview.

Is commuting so bad? Ms. Drago pondered that question as she had her feet up, lay stretched out in a La-Z-Boy chair (pleasantly full from a bowl of pasta) and had just hit the pause button on a DVD of "Brokeback Mountain."

This homey scene, however, was playing out behind a door at La Guardia in one of two communal sleeping rooms each outfitted for about 30 people maintained there by American, Ms. Drago said. The pasta was food-court fare. The DVD was playing on her laptop. She sleeps there several nights a month between trips, free. "It's all I can afford," she said. "There are hundreds of us who do this in New York."

Ms. Drago and other flight attendants and pilots point out that once work starts, they enjoy their jobs.

Certain skills help. "I can honestly sleep at any time of the day in any time zone," said Kiandra Schardt, 26, a JetBlue flight attendant with a long commute from Hawaii to New York. When she returns to her studio apartment at the beach on Oahu's north shore after her two weeks of work, she said, "It's worth it."

Wary of fatigued pilots and flight attendants, the Federal Aviation Administration limits flying hours and mandates minimum time between flights. Some union contracts enforce further limits. But what employees do during off hours sleep, commute is not policed.

"We can't be there making sure they go to bed at the right time," said Mark V. Rosenker, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. "These people are professionals."

Mr. Miller, the JetBlue pilot from Wichita, says he polices himself. "When I'm going to work, I always have to have eight hours of sleep before I fly. I won't compromise safety," he said. "Plus, it's my career. One mistake and I'm done."
Graphic: Taking the Long Way Home
Graphic: Taking the Long Way Home (click here)

For commuters, a short trip is nice, but even better is a route with little competition. Ed Martin, an American flight attendant who is based in Dallas, said of commuting from his home in Vancouver, British Columbia: "I'm not competing with anyone."

Mr. Martin is relatively low on the seniority list, and is often placed on reserve for the international flights he prefers. He waits in Dallas for the flight that needs him, ready to be at the airport on two-hours notice.

He has become a regular at a Motel 6 near the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, paying out of his own pocket the special crew rate of $28 a night, taxes included, at times waiting as many as five nights in a row.

Anne Loew avoided commuting for 29 years, living in and flying out of the New York area as an American flight attendant. But she and her husband, a freelance photographer, moved to Panama City, Panama, last year, selling their home in Connecticut. Ms. Loew, 52, transferred to American's Miami base.

"I'm worried about my pension," she said. "The cost of living down here will allow me to put the maximum in my 401(k)."

Some airline office workers commute, too. Beverly Behrens, 28, recently transferred to Southwest's headquarters in Dallas from its Little Rock, Ark., base; she commutes daily until her husband gets a transfer. While she gets home late at night, he starts work at 3:45 a.m. as a screening manager for the Transportation Security Administration at Little Rock Airport.

"I generally see him as I'm going through the line and I say, 'Hey, baby,' " she said.

As years go by, though, commuting can lose its charm. Ellen McNamara, an American flight attendant for 30 years, has commuted to O'Hare International Airport in Chicago from her home in Nashville since 1995, when American closed its base there, she said. Flights are often full, and she ends up flying into Midway Airport often enough that she buys the Midway-to-O'Hare shuttle bus tickets 10 at a time, for $65.

"The pilots take the train because it's cheaper," she said.

Getting home for a doctor's appointment or just to be with her husband is getting harder. "If it weren't for the commuting," said Ms. McNamara, 58, "I could probably do this until I'm 70." Instead, she is thinking of retiring at 60. "I think it's time. It takes a toll."

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