Pilots, Commuting, and Fatigue

We started this conversation yesterday in the comment section, and I think it’s deserving of its own topic. The Colgan Air accident involved a couple of pilots who were exhausted. One had just flown in on a Airline Employee Commutesredeye the night before and shouldn’t have been flying that plane. Thanks to this incident, commuting and fatigue are getting their time in the spotlight, and it’s important that this gets discussed.

First, I’d like to make it clear that this is in no way a regional airline issue. Pilots at nearly every airline commute and fatigue is an issue regardless of what size plane you’re flying, though it is more taxing to fly 10 short hops a day than it is to fly one long haul flight over the ocean. Also, at the regional level, low wages can make commuting more of a necessity than a choice depending upon where that pilot is based.

People often think of commercial pilots as making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, but the reality is that it takes a lot of suffering to get even close to that point. After getting a private pilots license, most pilots will scrap along, building hours any way they can with the hope that an airline will pick them up. Sometimes, that first job may be at some sketchy cargo airline hauling crap on ancient airplanes in the middle of the night. For others, that job will be for a regional airline.

That regional job pays just about nothing. A first year First Officer at Colgan, for example, will earn $21 an hour. And that’s $21 per hour of actual flying, not time on the clock. If that guy flies 75 hours a month (that’s the minimum Colgan guarantees), then he’ll make $18,900 a year. Yes, it’s incredibly low, but that changes over time in a growing industry.

When the industry is growing, the opportunity for advancement comes quickly. For example, if a pilot is able to get on with Southwest, the best paying passenger airline in the US, he’ll make $54 an hour in his first year as a First Officer, more than doubling his annual pay. A Southwest captain tops out at $206 an hour, close to $200,000 a year with minimum flying levels. But in a shrinking industry like we have today, people don’t move up very frequently. They get stuck in their jobs and don’t have the opportunity to advance. That’s why you hear a lot of grumbling these days when you didn’t hear it as much before. The unfortunate problem for the pilot, however, is that there’s always someone waiting to take that spot.

In this shrinking industry, pilots get paid less for longer, and that makes creating a good life for oneself harder to do, especially if that pilot is based in a big and expensive city. Allowing a pilot to commute to his job is the only way to be able to pay someone that little and expect him to live. That’s why you see people commuting from either cheaper cities or from parents’ homes. It saves precious money. These newbies usually find a bunch of other pilots and they all go in on a crash pad in their base – whenever someone is in town they can crash there. It’s not ideal, but it works. So, should this be stopped?

Not in my opinion. Listen to what Peggy Gilligan, Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety for the FAA, had to say on the subject during Senate committee hearings on the Colgan Air accident in Buffalo.

As you can imagine, those pilots who commute responsibly are understandably concerned that they could be forced to relocate because of the irresponsible actions of a few. Should some sort of hard and fast commuting rule be imposed, it could result in families being separated, people being forced to sell homes at a loss, or even people being forced to violate child custody agreements. It is important to keep in mind these personal accounts because, to people not familiar with the airline industry, the issue of living in one city and working hundreds of miles away in another does not make sense. But in the airline industry, this is not only a common practice, it is one airline employees have come to rely on.

Very true. Do you think airlines are going to magically raise pay levels or pay for relocation? No way. And why should they? This process works just fine for those who are responsible. It’s those who take advantage of the system and show up exhausted after a long night of commuting that should be stopped. If a pilot can’t commute properly in order to show up rested for work, then maybe it’s not the right job for that person.

This is why the FAA is so important. The FAA needs to be vigilant in ensuring that airlines aren’t putting too much pressure on pilots to fly even if they aren’t up to it. There have certainly been times where that’s happened in the past, and I imagine it happens today. It’s a very hard thing to police for an airline. If management is too soft, then pilots may take advantage of the situation. If management is too hard, then safety becomes an issue.

This really is a job for the FAA, and it’s regulatory issues like these that should be their top priority. I’m eagerly waiting to see what they decide when it comes to rest and commuting rules, but hopefully they don’t give in to politics and simply ban commuting altogether.

[Original photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/30816202@N02/ / CC BY 2.0]
[Original photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/articnomad/ / CC BY-SA 2.0 – Joshua Davis – jdavis.info]

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41 Comments on "Pilots, Commuting, and Fatigue"

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David SF eastbay
Member
It’s your math and explanation that makes things more clear. As someone who lives in California where it’s expensive to live, I would say how could someone not live here (as an example) making $21 an hour. But as you said that is not $21 x a 40 hour work week. Living in a large city at $19K a year would be hard but not out of the question. That’s why people have roommates or two income families. A big issue is like military familes, they never know how long they may be based in one location. It takes a… Read more »
Ron
Guest
How much does it cost airlines to enable commuting? With capacity shrinking and loads rising, do airlines need to reserve capacity for commuters, either by holding back seats or by scheduling larger aircraft than the route would otherwise sustain? In an era when fares were high and flights were never full, free flights were a very desirable perk, and fairly cheap for airlines to give. With today’s fare levels, how important are the free flights for attracting people to the industry? What would be the consequences if an airline decided to substantially reduce free flights, thereby forcing staff to get… Read more »
James
Guest
I’m curious how easy, or difficult and stressful it is for pilots to hop across the country on their airlines, (or their partner or competing airlines.) They fly top-tier standby correct? But that’s still below revenue pax, and with many plane types scaled down and flights full it would seem difficult to board anything but a jump seat on many flights. How early in advance must they start their “commute” to arrive in their starting city? I flew to L.A. over this past weekend on a friend’s buddy pass, and while light loads netted me a first class seat Friday… Read more »
Hunter
Guest
@ David SFeastbay: I’m not sure your military example is a fair one. First of all, those families usually live in base housing, which means they don’t have the dynamic of having to sell their homes at the whim of their employer. Additionally, most military families head into it knowing full well relocation is a possibility; it’s the reason many families choose a military career. To suddenly change the rules on thousands of families who have established lives that include commuting simply isn’t fair. And, again, I think it’s a knee jerk reaction to the problem. Hard and fast commuting… Read more »
SEAN
Guest

There was a pilot who flew for AA who lived in Princeton NJ, who’s father was VP at CO. They lived in Princeton because it allowed him to commute to either PHL, WER, LGA or JFK. Also it gave him flexability on the type of route he wanted to fly.

Greg
Guest
Sorry for the length of this post. I am a regional pilot that has chosen to commute to work. I live in Spokane, WA and am based in Seattle, WA. I have chosen to commute for two reasons. I am on the road far too much. I have family in Spokane, so they are a good support structure for my wife and son while I am on the road. The $36,000 a year I make is bad quality of life in Seattle, but it is a reasonable quality of life in Spokane. My commute is far easier than most. The… Read more »
Greg
Guest

And one other benefit to commuting from Spokane. Prior to my employer vastly shrinking our airline I could usually count on at least a couple overnights in Spokane in a schedule period. Meaning I would be home a little bit more.

Greg
Guest

On the west coast Spokane, WA and Boise, ID are very popular cities to live in for flight crew. Each city has a low cost of living, a very high quality of life, and good flight access to the major west coast bases. About 1/4 of the crew base I am part of lives in Spokane. I couple times I have been on a fairly empty flight that had more than 30 employees commuting home.

Nate
Guest
Greg, Cranky, etc There have been some high-level talks with some HR departments, Safety folks, and executives at other airlines and no one is going to like what has been developed if the FAA or another body (Congress) starts poking around in this: They will just simply stop allowing commuting. Flight crews will HAVE to live in base. And you’d be surprised at how many airlines are going to be firm with this. I know that one airline is already working with HR/Unions to do this for new hires coming in. Fortunately I work for a small airline where almost… Read more »
Carl
Guest
Greg wrote: My commute is far easier than most. The flight is about 50 minutes. There are more than 20 flights a day each way between the two cities on four different airlines. The gate agents in Spokane are awesome. They are fairly senior in our system and know the realities well. They don’t screw with me at all and will bend over backwards to get me on an airplane. Most airlines have commuting policies. At my employer I have to list on and make an attempt for two flights that will get me in base prior to my showtime.… Read more »
Douglas
Guest
When an airline pays to send a pilot somewhere positive space, that is called “deadheading” and counts toward the duty period. It has nothing whatsoever to do with commuting. Airlines do not – repeat, do not – book pilots positive space so that you make their trip. It has never happened at any of the three airlines I have worked for. There is a commuter clause in the contract in which the commuting pilot has to show that they tried to get on two separate flights that would have allowed them to make it to work. If they couldn’t get… Read more »
Greg
Guest
@ Nate: It is very unfortunate that they would be doing this with little knowledge and experience with actually commuting themselves. Like I said above, my flying commute is actually more restful than if I lived in Seattle and had to fight traffic. Most commuters are very responsible. I would say the much larger threat to safety would be the 16 hour work days with 8 hours off between where only about 5 hours of sleep is possible. There is a storm brewing in the future. There is a vacuum forming behind pilots where there are now very few new… Read more »
A
Guest
Cranky – do note that pilots are not the only ones that have careers starting at excruciatingly low levels and are finding it difficult to move up the pay scale in the current economy. The difference is a pilot has much more flexibility to “commute” thereby being able to choose that low cost of living area. Most other people can’t do that. We have to live where the jobs are no matter what the cost of living is. For example, I could live pretty cheap in a state like South Dakota, but there are NO jobs in my field there.… Read more »
David SF eastbay
Member
James wrote: to various standby lists. I assume it’s far easier for pilots, – but I’d think constantly monitoring flight loads and planning how to get TO your job, and home, would be a very stressful exercise in itself… If to many flight crews commute and need to go via one hub to get to another hub (as an example), there could be a sold out flight with more then one crew member trying to hitch a ride. It’s possible an airline could bump a paying pax so a commuting crew member could get on so the airline doesn’t risk… Read more »
Nate
Guest
Greg, While I think (and even Cranky!) may agree that I’m not one of those evil-pointy-haired airline bosses, I like to take care of my staff, and I know we won’t ever implement a “no-commute” policy for our crews. However, when you look at all the dumbass decisions and knee-jerk reactions by the airlines when the FAA or Congress does something they don’t like, its never a good decision, nor a well thought out one. I do know that Continental hired some FAs a few years back for EWR and required they live within 2 hours of EWR… its only… Read more »
Nate
Guest

oh, and for the record, I commute 2,800 miles every 6 to 10 weeks for my job :)

Greg
Guest
@ Carl: Yes, it is pretty easy to figure who I work for. But I cannot directly say it as we now have a detailed policy as to what we can say when associating with them. As to the cost side of things, this is how I figure the system is close to free for the airlines: – The only case where I have ever bumped a revenue passenger while commuting would be due to the short staffing. Prior to my employer attempting to shrink our way to world domination I would never be allowed to get positive space. –… Read more »
David SF eastbay
Member
Greg wrote: On the west coast Spokane, WA and Boise, ID are very popular cities to live in for flight crew. Each city has a low cost of living, a very high quality of life, and good flight access to the major west coast bases. About 1/4 of the crew base I am part of lives in Spokane. I couple times I have been on a fairly empty flight that had more than 30 employees commuting home. And what would have happen if that flight was full? By the time you get home it might be time to turn around… Read more »
Greg
Guest

@ Nate:
If my horrible 50 minute commute would be prohibited I would just quit. Not worth living in a slum in Seattle again.

David SF eastbay
Member
When I was with TWA there was a lot of flights between MCI and STL. The early and late flights were usually the TWA employee flights for those who worked in one city and lived in the other. One city having a hub and the other the admin center and maintaince base had a number of employees going back and forth. Since both cities were large cities in the same state, the cost of living should be equal. So it got down to people wanting to live in one city for whatever reason. An hour flight between the cities was… Read more »
David M
Guest

David SFeastbay wrote:

An hour flight between the cities was a shorter commute that I’ve had at times living and working in the same metro area.

Don’t forget to factor in the time it takes to get from home to airport, including parking the car and getting to the gate, and waiting for the flight. If a pilot lives 30 minutes from the airport, and it takes 30 minutes to get from the parking lot to the gate, and is at the gate 30 minutes before scheduled departure, that 1 hour flight means a 2.5 hour commute.

Eric
Guest
Great idea to open this dialogue Cranky…since it is the elephant in the living room that has many crew, and management, folks on edge. As i said yesterday, I would really like to see ALPA,the AFA, TWU, IAM, IBT, etc get in front of this because if the Feds get involved…its gonna get ugly. I think everyone who reads this blog knows the Aviation 101 law involving the ‘accident chain’ (seemingly unrelated events and decisions that compound into a chain of events leading to an incident). Aviation professionals also know that preventing the chain from leading to an incident involves… Read more »
enplaned
Guest

Commuting shouldn’t be banned, but to be consistent with the anti-fatigue rules that exist (and the new ones that are in the works) commuting should be taken into account by those rules.

In other words, the new fatigue limitation rules should explicitly incorporate a pilot’s commute (at least the in-bound portion).

That wouldn’t eliminate commuting per-se, but it would create a difference between the cost (to the airline) of a commuting pilot vs one that does not commute. In the long run, that would give airlines incentives to not permit commuting which might make commuting less prevalent in the future.

Greg
Guest

@ Eric:
Eric, you hit it exactly right. Thank you.

Joe
Guest

What about a reasonable limit on the number of allowable commuter miles? Even the most expensive metro areas have inexpensive and livable towns within a few hundred miles at most. The cross-country route the Colgan pilot took before she started her shift behind the controls should set off alarms, I think. Set limits before the Feds do it for you!

David SF eastbay
Member
Joe wrote: What about a reasonable limit on the number of allowable commuter miles? Good point. Someone say based in LAX or SFO could live in OR, NV, AZ where it cost less and commute to LAX/SFO in a very short time. An airline can say ok you are based in this city and can live within a 1-1.5 hr air commute away (or something similiar to that time frame). Yes there are less expensive places in California then living in LA or SF city proper, but it could take 2-3 hrs to drive depending on traffic, weather and time… Read more »
million miler
Guest
I think it is very interesting that in all the discussion about commuting, no one has mentioned the fact that the currently most famous pilot in the world has a cross country commute. If the general information in the press and on the internet is correct, Captain Sully lives in rural Northern California and is based in Charlotte. In addition to the trans con flight to work, he probably has something like a minimum 2.5 hour drive to a major airport.(or possibly a number of connections from a closer airport) I believe that prior to the incident that made him… Read more »
Dan
Guest
One of the real problems with any sort of commute limitation is the truly dynamic nature of base assignments. Cranky touched a bit on what seniority means to an airline pilot — but one thing that could have used more emphasis is that base assignments are part of that. At the network/legacy carriers (UAL for example) that operate multiple hubs, fleet types, and overseas flights, domicile choices aren’t straight forward. A pilot could hold, say, senior Airbus FO in ORD, junior 777 captain at JFK, or junior B747 at LAX. There’s a big difference in pay amongst the different positions… Read more »
David M
Guest
million miler wrote: I think it is very interesting that in all the discussion about commuting, no one has mentioned the fact that the currently most famous pilot in the world has a cross country commute. He *had* a cross country commute. He retired today. million miler wrote: If the general information in the press and on the internet is correct, Captain Sully lives in rural Northern California and is based in Charlotte. In addition to the trans con flight to work, he probably has something like a minimum 2.5 hour drive to a major airport.(or possibly a number of… Read more »
Axelsarkiss
Member

“A first year First Officer at Colgan, for example, will earn $21 an hour”

That is shockingly low. My flight instructor makes more that that, at $30. (That is one of the reasons I have a flight once every three months until i’m 14.5, when I start serous training…) An Instructor that lives 5 mins from the airport, and that half the time does not do anything but sit and monitor, gets paid more that a qualified pilot for a comercial airline. I must say, it’s scary…

David SF eastbay
Member
million miler wrote: If the general information in the press and on the internet is correct, Captain Sully lives in rural Northern California and is based in Charlotte. In addition to the trans con flight to work, he probably has something like a minimum 2.5 hour drive to a major airport. Capt Sully lives here in the bay area with the other 7+ million of us so it’s not to rural. The city he lives in is about a 10min drive to the nearest commuter train station (BART) and the trains on that line go right to SFO in about… Read more »
frank
Guest

@ Nate:
They will just simply stop allowing commuting. Flight crews will HAVE to live in base.
========================================

Would NEVER, EVER happen. There’s a very HIGH PERCENTAGE OF COMMUTERS at all airlines. Some say, upwards of 70 PERCENT.

frank
Guest
Commuting is stressful. I rarely get a pax seat. I’m required to sit on the jumpseat and like, Greg, I am expected to have a back up flight. Soooo, if my trip starts in base at 4:30pm….that means I’m leaving my home around 9am IN THE MORNING. Beginning with my first back up. Just this month, I endured TWO HOTEL rooms at my expense due to weather in the Northeast. Had to travel on MY DAYS OFF to get to work to avoid weather delays. It is a fatigue issue for anyone who travels to and from their BASE. Lets… Read more »
Greg
Guest
I would dare say that if congress required that pilots live x miles from their domicile it could probably be challenged in the supreme court. How is it constitutional for congress to force a group of people to live somewhere based on their job? From an above post someone mentioned the dynamic nature of bases depending on seniority and equipment type. Bases also open and close very frequently. The regional I work for that is easy to figure out :) has had three base closures in their short 30 years. And they are by far one of the more stable… Read more »
Sean
Guest

I find it ironic that since every congressman/woman technically has to commute to their place of employment from their home district they would be so willing to remove that right for others.

Worldwide Travel Ideas
Guest

The idea that commercial pilots – who have an advanced skill and who are directly responsible for the lives of dozens of people – may make less than $50K per year is appalling. I’m generally a firm believer in capitalism and “supply & demand,” but in this case it just seems wrong.

JamesK
Guest

@Worldwide Travel Ideas
You’ll be in for a shock, then. Most major carriers’ first officers, especially on narrowbodies, make less than that amount. It’s all about seniority, fleet type, and on which side of the cockpit you sit.

Mark
Member

Joe wrote:

The cross-country route the Colgan pilot took before she started her shift behind the controls should set off alarms, I think. Set limits before the Feds do it for you!

The scariest part about this statement is that Prater testified, at the Senate Hearings in early Dec, that she was legal to work it! Everyone is trying to blame commuting as part of the problem. But under the current FAR Duty Limits, she was legal to work the whole thing.

Ronald
Guest
First of all, let’s clear up some misconceptions: 1. The FAA cares a lot more about airline managements’ concerns than pilots or passengers. As proof, you point to the endlessly drawn out process of rest and duty time rules going on for 12 months now. The airline CEOs actually want to raise the flying hours per day for a 2 pilot team to 12 HOURS for most flights!! (It’s now 8 hours). The FAA is stalling rest reform hoping that Congress forgets about the Colgan Air accident. I think you WILL see the FAA actually INCREASE fatigue levels among pilots… Read more »
Thegoodwife
Guest
This is very serious. I watch my husband commute 4 hours to work. He then flys a transcon from the east coast to the west coast. The next day he leaves at night back to the East coast where he “day sleeps”. He then gets up that same evening and flys another 4 hour leg. When he comes home from this(commuting another 4hours) He is exhausted to say the least. This is in addition to working 90 plus hours for the month and sometimes having only one day off inbetween trips like this. Move closer to his base, well, we… Read more »
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