Give a Hoot! Don’t Commute! – Part 3
by Jason Depew, TPN Staff Writer
Thanks for sticking around so far TPN. To review: this is the third and final installment in a series of posts about commuting to your airline job. The two key points from earlier are:
1. Commuting it terrible!
2. Despite #1, there are a few acceptable reasons to commute
If you’re one of the fellow losers who went with #2, I’d like to offer my perspective on ways to minimize the pain. I’ve commuted for my entire airline career (2 years and counting.) My first 18 months involved commuting from RAF Lakenheath, in the United Kingdom…first to NYC then to Atlanta. I now commute to Atlanta from Tampa.
My wife and I considered living in Georgia, but since that state hates some military members, they refused to give her a dental license. They made our choice pretty easy. It’s okay because my wife got an outstanding job offer in Florida anyway. We also chose this location because of good schools, nice weather, gorgeous beaches, and Florida’s lack of income tax.
The first step to making a commute manageable is to get educated, organized, and proactive. You must know the intimate details of your company’s commuting policies. You need to know exactly what flights can get you to work on time and exactly when you can list for them. I can list for a jumpseat to work 5 ½ days prior, at noon. If I’m on our jumpseat listing website at that exact moment, I have an excellent chance of getting the exact seat I want. If not, all bets are off. You need to do whatever it takes to stay on top of your jumpseat booking if you’re a commuter. Use Google Calendar to push notifications to your phone, tie a string around your finger, ask your spouse to nag you…whatever it takes! This is something you have 100% control over, so any failure here is your own fault.
The next step in improving a commuting life is through bidding…in a few ways.
First, you can bid for your trips to be “commutable.” This means that a trip’s show time is late enough in the day that you have multiple options for getting from your house to your base. You commute to work the day of your trip, precluding the need to go to work a day early and pay for a crash pad or hotel room the night before. You can also bid for trips that are commutable on the back end by making sure they finish early enough to give you some options for getting home.
Each company will have a unique way for you to put in your bids every month. At my airline, we bid for our monthly schedules using the Pilot Bid System, or PBS. Here’s an example of some of the lines in a bid that might help make a trip commutable (the term “pairing” means “trip”):
Not to digress too much into PBS bidding strategy, but let’s take this a step further. If PBS can’t build me a schedule that honors both these rules, it’ll start ignoring my preferences, one at a time, and trying to build me a schedule that honors as many of my preferences as possible. Thankfully though, PBS allows you to include more than 100 lines in your bid, so I could even get fancy and put something like this:
Priority is always top -> bottom, left -> right, so this gives the system several options to award me trips of varying commutability.
The next way for a commuter to maximize bidding utility is to bid for trips with layovers at home. I live between Tampa and Orlando, so I bid for trips with layovers at either one. Since Sarasota and Gainesville are also somewhat close, I bid for layovers there too.
If you get a layover at the airport from which you commuted to work, you just wait until the passengers are gone, head to the employee parking lot, and drive home…or have your sweetheart pick you up. If you lay over at a different airport you can have someone meet you or rent a car. Renting a car is a better deal some places than others. I used to get cars in Tampa for $15/day through Expedia.
If your show time is early the next morning you may choose to go back to the layover hotel that night, after spending time with your family. Also, if your family is feeling adventurous, or your childcare situation is favorable, you can have part or all of your family enjoy a night at a fancy hotel with you, courtesy of the company. (This situation should be more easily negotiated if your decision to commute was based heavily on being close to grandparents.)
Another good deal is being able to bid for trips that start or end with deadhead legs, especially if they’re planned to be to or from your home airport. My contract states that all trips must start and end at the pilot’s assigned base. If the company wants to start it somewhere else, they must deadhead the pilot (buy him or her a confirmed ticket) to/from the assigned base. Sometimes, I can find trips that are planned to start or end with a DH from TPA, MCO, SRQ, or GNV, to ATL. On the front end, this is ideal. It means the company gives me a guaranteed seat to commute to work…zero stress for that end of the trip. It’s nice on the back end of the trip because I land from my last flight, head to the parking lot, and drive home. I get home hours earlier, but I still get paid for that DH leg, whether I’m riding on the aircraft or not.
My contract also has a great provision that allows us to “deviate from deadhead” on the front- or back-end of a trip. As long as the first or last leg of your trip is a deadhead, you’re allowed to change it to a different flight between the place where your trip ends to anywhere you can get from that airport on a company aircraft. This means I can bid for a trip that ends with a DH from Detroit to Atlanta, and just change it to a deadhead from Detroit to Tampa. Again, this gets you a guaranteed commuting leg and reduces your overall stress.
I’ve successfully used all of these strategies at various times. Two particular examples stand out: Thanksgiving and Christmas last year.
For some reason, most airline pilots latch on to the idea that they must not work on these holidays. They go out of their way and try all kinds of bidding and scheduling tricks to make it happen. I think it’s silly…just have your family celebration on a different day. We did it many times during military deployments and it works for airline employment as well. However, this ridiculous pilot behavior gives the rest of us some interesting options. Since many more senior pilots are trying hard to avoid flying these days, we’re suddenly senior enough to bid for trips that we may not have been able to hold otherwise.
This Thanksgiving I bid specifically for a trip that started on Thursday, Nov 23rd.
“But Emet!” exclaims Capt Senseless, “That’s a holiday! You should try to get that day off!”
Well…it turns out that day was scheduled for nothing but a single deadhead from Atlanta to Orlando. That’s it. I chose to “deviate from deadhead” by staying at home with my family that day, enjoying the holiday, and driving to the layover hotel in Orlando late that evening. (I got paid 5.25 hours of pay for that day!) The next day was a 1-leg cakewalk to LaGuardia, followed by a deadhead to Burlington, VT, a coveted layover destination that I normally can’t get. The last day was three easy legs back to Atlanta, finishing at 17:30…in plenty of time to catch a flight home. Not a bad way to “work” on Thanksgiving.
I pulled a similar trick for Christmas. I got a nice 4-day trip that ended with a layover in Orlando on Dec 23rd, with nothing but a single deadhead leg the next day. So, I was home late on the 23rd and got all of Christmas Eve with my family. I got paid 5.25 hours to sit at home the 24th.
Then, I bid for a trip starting on the 25th. The first leg was a deadhead from Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale. I didn’t need to be in FLL until late that afternoon, so I opened presents with the kids, then just drove to TPA where I’d purchased a $41 ticket on one of our competitors from TPA to FLL. (Thanks to Shakes, T-Bone, Slick, et al.) That trip had a 30-hour layover in Orlando for the next two nights. To make things easy I rented a car for $50 and drove home…arriving the same day I’d left for work. I got all of the 26th at home with my family (and got paid 5.25 hours for it) and then continued the trip out of Orlando on the 27th. That trip concluded with a deadhead from TPA to ATL, so I just drove home. I got 15.75 hours of pay to be with my family on Christmas morning, fly a total of 5 legs over 3 days, spend an entire day off, be at home every night, and have a no-stress commute home. You can’t beat that.
These strategies are easier to employ the more senior you get. They won’t work well in extremely popular layover locations (Las Vegas) or exotic places with little service (the Virgin Islands,) but they can work well in most places.
I’m a new pilot mentor at my company and one of my new hires hit the jackpot with this strategy. He’s from Detroit (a hub,) but got assigned to Atlanta. We were discussing commuting strategies and I mentioned that he should look for DTW layovers, though they aren’t common. I thought to ask if he lived near any other airports we serve and he mentioned Flint. I think he kept talking after that, but I couldn’t hear anything over the “DING!! DING!! DING!!” of the jackpot announcement blaring in the background.
Flint. As is the Tropics. As in ecological disaster area. As in: “F*** you I’m not drinking that sludge!” Our layover hotel there is mid-rate and at least a mile walk (including a busy highway overpass with no sidewalk) just to get to a gas station and a Jimmy Johns. Nothing else in sight. I’m not that picky, but even I think it’s a terrible layover. My new hire lives 45 minutes from Flint (outside the biohazard area.) He could practically hold a line from day one just by bidding for trips with layovers there. If you’re considering a commute, look for somewhere close enough to a well-served, but less-desirable location with mainline service. You’ll have an easier time commuting out of there and you’ll be able to hold layovers at home much easier.
It’s worth noting that most of these strategies won’t help a non-commuter. Atlanta-based pilots don’t get layovers in Atlanta. The idea is that you’d bid for one- or two-day trips and just go home at night anyway. In some fleets and at some companies that works well. Allegiant is known for this, and I think it’s more doable at Southwest than it is at a place like Delta. This strategy also hinges on you flying a narrowbody aircraft that lays over in your new hometown, which brings me to me next point:
In order to improve your life with these strategies, you have to choose the fleet you bid onto carefully. A year ago, the MD88 was in Tampa all the time. Since winter though, most of the flights here are on shiny new A321s or slightly less-shiny B757s. My B717 gets layovers here, but not as many as it used to. If you want to get layovers at and deadheads to/from home, you need to bid onto an aircraft that will give you those opportunities. Unfortunately, as evidenced here in Tampa, those things can be seasonal. If I’d decided to stay on the MD88 to get more Tampa layovers, I’d be out of luck right now.
Another important part of choosing a fleet to bid onto is how “commutable” the trips at that base are. I could be a lot more senior as a B717 pilot assigned to NYC; however, most of the trips at that base start way to early for me to commute in the day of the trip and end too late for me to get home the night the trip ends. It would cost me an extra two half-days and a two nights at a hotel/crashpad each trip to fly there. In my opinion, no seniority is worth that. Once you work for an airline, you will have access to the monthly “bid packages” for every fleet in the company. If you’re going to commute, do your research and make sure that you’ll be able to get commutable trips before bidding onto a new category.
So, you can use bidding and scheduling to make your commute less painful. Make sure you know the rules for booking jumpseats. Bid for trips that show late and finish early. Look for layovers at home or trips that start/end with deadheads…especially if that deadhead is between your hub and your hometown. You’ll have to be careful what aircraft fleet you choose to make sure you’ll have desirable trips to bid for.
The biggest other scheduling trick I use to improve my commuting life is to just work less. Bid for long trips (four- or five-days area ideal for me.) It’s frustrating to be gone from home for such long stretches, but that’s fewer stressful commutes. Plus, most of those trips include a 30-hour layover…a day of getting paid to sit around in a nice hotel.
Even better, just cut a trip a month out of your schedule. I worked an average of three trips per month last year and made nearly as much as my peers in the military. It was less stress and far more time at home for about the same money. Yes, I could have made a lot more money than my peers if I’d done that fourth trip each month, but why bother? There needs to be some balance in life. If you’re truly hurting for money you could plan a month or two each year to chase dollars. You could bid reserve and use your company’s version of a strategy we call “Rolling Thunder” to make a lot of extra cash to make up the difference.
So, you’ve scheduled yourself for a great trip, but you somehow forgot to book your jumpseat. (That never happens to responsible pilots, like yours truly.) By the time you get around to checking, your only option will get you to your base five hours before your show time. That’s going to make for a long day. If your plan is just to sit around and sulk for that whole time you’ll end up like the old pilots who hate their company, their job, and are pissed that the multi-hundred-thousand-dollar paychecks they get aren’t enough. You don’t want to be that guy! How are you going to cope?
My go-to is a nap. All of my company’s pilot lounges have quiet rooms or sections with rows of nice recliners and blankets. Grab a mask and some ear plugs from the bins on the shelves by the windows and give yourself an extra hour or two. NASA has shown that a 30-45 minute nap improves performance significantly. If you’re going to nap for longer than that you need to plan for at least 90-120 minutes or you’ll wake up in the wrong part of the sleep cycle and you’ll be worse off than if you hadn’t napped at all.
If your airline’s pilot lounges suck, look around for a quiet area in the airport, or get yourself access to an airline’s customer lounge. Most of them don’t allow pilots in uniform, so be intelligent. At the very least, put a jacket on over your uniform shirt. Personally, I just go to our commuter room and change into civilian clothes anytime I’ll be there for more than a few hours. Also, don’t act like a jerk and raid the free food buffet in the lounge like you’re a starving Soviet peasant. The Points Guy is a pretty good place to find credit card deals that include lounge access.
Another great option is to hit the gym. Some airports have them, but you might need to ask around. My pilot lounge even has two showers.
Most airports and pilot lounges have internet, so you can catch up on your favorite shows and read the latest post on TPN. If you get sick of being a passive consumer, why not work on improving yourself or creating something? Stash a guitar in the pilot lounge commuters’ storage room. Teach some online classes. Write a post for TPN. I find that by keeping a few pots on the stove at all times, I run out of time long before I get bored during a long day commuting. Take advantage of that time.
One other opportunity that I love is keeping an eye out for old friends. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the increasing frequency with which I run into people I know at work. Several times recently I’ve encountered someone from a past life in the pilot lounge, and looked up a couple hours later wondering where the time had gone.
One of the things you’ll miss most about the military is the camaraderie and just sitting around shooting the bull with your buddies. One of the admittedly selfish reasons I write all this stuff for TPN is to get as many of you into my pilot lounge as possible on any given day. It isn’t the building or even the aircraft that makes a flying squadron a great place…it’s the people. The more of you in our pilot lounges, the more they’ll feel like the flying squadrons that we all know and love.
This is also one of the things that makes TPN such a potential force for good in our lives. TPN is basically an online flying squadron…a place to hang out, ask questions, tell stories, etc. Even better, the Hangar Fly events that have started popping up all over the world are opportunities for us to have some of that flying squadron mentality in our own home towns. I foresee this effect expanding as time goes on. Leaving the military won’t have to mean giving up that part of your life, and the civilian-only pilots who never knew what it was like can finally get a taste of what it means to be part of a flying squadron. But I digress….
Back to the topic at hand, there are a lot of ways to make the most of a commute. If you end up with a few extra hours in your pilot lounge, treat it like a layover. Find some entertainment, take a nap, or create something useful. When you run into an old friend, enjoy the opportunity to catch up. Armed with those techniques, you may not even mind that much if your scheduling and bidding strategies don’t work out.
As good as these mitigation strategies may be, they still don’t get rid of your commute. If you have the chance, I still assert that you’re almost always better off living in base. Communicate with your family and plan ahead. There are so many great bases at so many great companies that your family can probably find one that suits them. If all else fails, just remember the words of old Woodsy and “Give a Hoot! Don’t Commute!”