Commuting at 35,000 feet

by James Wysong on May 30, 2006

We all know America’s traffic commuters, the chain-smoking hurry-up-and-waiters with the self-help books in the tape deck and the cell phones glued to their ears. They make their way down America’s roadways each morning and afternoon, furious or resigned according to their nature.

But the commuters I know best are airline employees who live far away from their base cities. They may work out of New York, but they could live in Pittsburgh, St Louis, San Diego — or even farther away. These are the ones in uniform waiting at the gates for their names to be called. Most of the time, they look like they could use a good sleep.

And small wonder. They get up early on the morning of an assigned flight, fight traffic to the airport, fly standby, sometimes making several connections, and then wait around for hours to work an eight-hour international flight. They end up sleeping the whole layover, then do the whole routine in reverse to get back home. Many of these people end up hating their jobs, but that is a risk they knowingly take. The routine works for some, but not so well for others.

Approximately 250,000 pilots and flight attendants work for commercial airlines; 40 percent of them are considered commuters. That’s 100,000 people. Most of them have just a short, one-leg trip from hometown to base city, but I have seen many cases of international commuting. For example, one flight attendant is based in New York but lives in Seoul, Korea, and another commutes from Miami to Australia.

There is even a flight attendant who lives in Canada but works out of Frankfurt, Germany. This might not sound as extreme as the other two examples, but let me give you a rundown of her commute. After working several trips in a row, she finishes in Germany and boards a 13-hour flight to San Francisco. She then catches a flight to Vancouver, Canada, waits around a couple of hours for a 19-seater express flight, which she gets on only 50 percent of the time. After landing, she drives 40 minutes to her house, where she hands over most of her paycheck to the nanny. Why would she put herself and her family through that? Because she wants a certain quality of life for her daughter, she says. But what kind of quality is it for the child when her mother is away most of the time and is grumpy when she gets home? It’s hard to believe it’s worth all the stress and exhaustion.

On one flight, I ran into an old friend whom I hadn’t seen in a while. After nine years, she was still commuting from San Diego to London. I barely recognized her, for the long-distance commute had aged her tremendously. All the miles, time zones and stress can’t be healthy — not to mention the stain it puts on her work record if she misses a flight.

One older flight attendant I work with once flew down to San Francisco from her home in Seattle on the day she was scheduled to work a flight to Asia. She took a four-hour nap in the crew lounge, woke up in a daze and took the next flight home. When the crew desk called and asked why she hadn’t shown up for her working flight, she was astonished. She honestly thought that she had flown it. I guess you could say she didn’t know whether she was coming or going.

Things get more difficult for airline commuters when peak travel season arrives and there is little space available for standby fliers. So much waiting around! To me, it sounds like a crazy way to live your life, but it’s not for me to say. And the commuters do have a point: Why spend every last penny on high mortgage payments for a cramped old house when you can have a good-sized new house, some land and a friendly community far from the hubbub of your base city – for half the price?

To research this subject more closely, I took a notepad to the gate of a popular commuter flight to Atlanta. I chose that destination because 20 percent of the employees in my base city live and commute from there. All the commuters know each other and, more importantly, know each other’s seniority status. The more senior they are, the better their chances of getting on the standby flight.

As they stand around chatting at the gate, the commuters will spot a senior employee walking toward them in the concourse. That’s one more seat gone. The junior employees all smile courteously, but mentally start checking their backup plans. It’s a chancy life, and I wouldn’t want it, but these commuters were upset when my airline decided to cut this route from the schedule – all six flights a day. Now the commuters will have to transfer, move or find alternative routes.

From a distance, the jet-setting lifestyle may look exciting, but the hours and wasted time are more than I can comprehend. This is one case to file under “Different Strokes for Different Folks,” but I guess it can also go under “Home Is Where the Heart Is.”

What’s the wildest commute that you’ve ever heard of? E-mail me. I want to know.

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