Just off the end of runway 25L at Los Angeles International Airport, pilots and mechanics sleep in recreational vehicles in an employee parking lot. These are their at-work crash pads. After putting in their shifts over several days, they fly long distances to their more permanent homes and families — in places like Utah, Wisconsin, Texas and Hawaii, according to the Wall Street Journal.
It’s a quiet community with no parties, outdoor beer drinking or gaudy flamingo decorations or lawn chairs allowed. When it’s time to go to work, they walk to a shuttle-bus pickup. “We’re just a bunch of professionals living away from home, doing the best job we can and being safe at the job,” said Steve Young, an airline mechanic who lives part of each week in an RV.
Commuting by airplane is a long-standing and, some say, necessary practice for this cash-strapped industry. Economic turmoil in the industry has spurred more pilots, flight attendants and mechanics to commute as vast schedule changes have moved jobs around the country. Instead of relocating families, many aviation workers — half of all pilots by some counts — simply commute to work by airplane.
They can hitch free rides on flights of their own airline or, in many cases, those of competitors. Most share cots in cramped apartments with other commuting workers to avoid the expense of hotel rooms. All are expected — and indeed required by federal regulation— to show up to work well-rested, no matter how taxing the commute.
“It’s the dirty secret of the airline industry,” said one airline chief executive, who asked not to be named. His U.S. airline has pilots who commute from as far as South America.
Long-distance commuting has raised safety concerns about whether flight crews are indeed reporting for work rested and ready. On Feb. 12, 2009, both pilots of Continental Connection 3407 had long commutes before reporting to Newark, N.J., where they began work. They may have rested only on couches in an airport crew room before crashing near Buffalo, N.Y. The National Transportation Safety Board ruled the crash, which killed 50, resulted primarily from pilot mistakes.
“Each pilot made an inappropriate decision to use the crew room to obtain rest before the accident flight,” the NTSB said in its report on the accident.
The captain, who lived in Tampa, Fla., apparently spent the night before the accident in the airline’s crew room. The first officer traveled all night on the day of the accident from Seattle on cargo flights. Investigators said neither pilot had any overnight accommodations in Newark. (Sleeping in the crew room is against most airlines’ policies.) The NTSB agency noted that 93 of 137 Newark-based pilots for Colgan Air Inc., which operated the flight for Continental, commuted by air to work.
The Buffalo crash did prompt the Federal Aviation Administration to seek comments on commuting and study the effect long commutes have on cockpit fatigue. New rules could be proposed this year, but that may not be likely.
“It’s a very tough issue,” said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt.
A former Eastern Airlines pilot, Babbitt himself commuted for five years from his home near Washington, D.C., to New York. He says he could get to La Guardia Airport quicker with a one-hour flight than many colleagues who lived in Connecticut and drove several hours to the airport.
“I was the commuter and they weren’t,” Babbitt said. “It’s just hard to identify. You live 10 miles from the airport and played 36 holes of golf this morning. I commuted in and had a good night’s rest. Which one of us is more fit for duty?” said Babbitt.
Airlines typically have five or 10 cities where they establish crew “bases” — that’s where trips begin and end for pilots and flight attendants. Each month, the schedule of flights from a base can change. And each month, the crews assigned to that base can change. Pilots and flight attendants request schedules they want and are assigned based on their seniority.
Schedule cuts through the recession have meant lots of shifting between bases — a few bases were closed, and most shrunk, forcing some workers to change bases.
Some commute to avoid uprooting family when airline jobs move. Some opt to live in states without state income taxes and fly to work. Some workers choose to shift bases to get a preferable schedule or higher pay.
And the airline lifestyle lends itself to commuting. Pilots and flight attendants often work long days and then have several days off. Since they are on the road anyway for their working days, they often aren’t sleeping at home anyway. So they commute for a four-day trip, then fly home for a few days.
Regional airline employees have a particularly difficult challenge — they earn far less than pilots and flight attendants at major airlines, and their airlines shift planes and routes around frequently.
“When you’re making below $30,000 or $40,000 a year, how much money can you afford to spend on a second home at a base?” asks Air Line Pilots Association President John Prater, a Continental Airlines Inc. captain who, during his flying career, lived near St. Louis and commuted at different times to work in Houston, Newark, Honolulu and Guam.
But there’s little doubt that commuting long distances has become more taxing. With planes so full in the past couple of years, pilots and flight attendants say they have trouble getting an empty seat for a free ride since they often are at the bottom of standby seating lists.
To help, Los Angeles World Airports, the city agency that runs LAX, decided in 2005 to let airline workers live in mobile homes and campers in an airport parking lot. (It is likely the only such officially sanctioned airport community in the country.) The village, located in a corner of Lot E, is limited to 100 vehicles. Five are currently on the waiting list. Vehicles have to be certified every six months that they can actually move; they pay $120 a month to park.
Residents say their airlines told them they couldn’t be identified by name or airline in articles about the parking-lot village after a story about the place ran in the Los Angeles Times last July.
One pilot who lives in Texas and commutes to a trailer in Lot E says the camper is simply “a place to come and get ready for work.” He often flies to LAX the night before his work schedule begins and sleeps in his 1979 RV, where he keeps his uniforms. And when his flying schedule is done, he typically ends up at LAX late in the day — too late to catch a flight back home.
Rather than a hotel room, which he says he can’t afford, or an inexpensive shared apartment, he enjoys his camper, wearing ear plugs at night to sleep through the noise of jets overhead.
“I never thought I would be here, but pay cuts force us to be frugal,” he said. “Commuting is tough. I’d rather live at a base, but there are a lot of issues with airlines and I can’t just pick up and move my family and kids.”
Young, the airline mechanic, is a leader of the commuter community’s association, called Airport Employee RV Organization, or AERO. He negotiates with airport officials and has an agreement with his boss that he can be named as long as his airline isn’t identified.
Most of the residents have cars (an additional $30 a month for parking). Some have local gym memberships. AERO communicates with its far-flung population by e-mail.
Since the airport doesn’t provide electrical or water hook-ups, residents have to improvise. Young uses solar power for electricity during the day and a small generator at night. His RV has a 100-gallon water tank that provides about eight days’ of showers. The airport doesn’t allow a propane truck to service the RVs, so residents have to drive 12 miles to fill propane tanks.
The RV community, he says, enhances safety and job security for commuters. “This is all about being at the job and being well-rested,” Young said.
For about 15 days a month, Alaska Airlines pilot Jim Lancaster lives in a motorhome in Parking Lot B near the southernmost runway at Los Angeles International Airport.
Every four minutes, a jetliner or turboprop roars in — 500 feet above his front door — for a landing. The noise is so loud it forces Lancaster to pause during conversations. But he doesn’t mind. Lancaster puts up with the smell of jet fuel and screaming engines to save time and money, according to Los Angeles Times.
The 60-year-old aviator’s primary residence is a cottage he shares with his wife overlooking a quiet bay off Puget Sound in Washington state. Living in Lot B while he’s on duty means he doesn’t have to rent a Los Angeles apartment with other pilots or spend 12 hours a day commuting to and from the Seattle area.
“As kids. we used to ask our parents to take us to the airport to see the planes,” Lancaster quipped. “Now I get to live at the airport.”
He isn’t the only one. Lancaster’s 2001 Tradewinds sits among 100 trailers and motorhomes that form a colony of pilots, mechanics and other airline workers at LAX, the third-busiest airport in the nation. They are citizens of one of the most unusual communities in the United States.
Their turf, just east of the Proud Bird restaurant off Aviation Boulevard, is less than 3,500 feet from the south runway. It is a drab expanse of crumbling gray asphalt, approach lights, chain-link fencing and rows of beige and white RVs — some battered, others grand. A splash of color comes from the red and white blooms of about a dozen rose bushes along the colony’s northern edge.
Many of the residents are separated from spouses, children and significant others for days — even weeks — at a time in order to keep their jobs or move up the pyramid of the airline industry.
“This is the cost of being a pilot today,” said Todd Swenson, 40, a first officer with Alaska Airlines. His wife, Amanda, and 2-year-old son, Noah, live in Fresno, a six-hour commute by car. “I’ve wanted to be a pilot all my life. It can be awful here. But I have to provide for my family, and I love flying airplanes.”
Swenson, who earns about $70,000 a year, lives across from Lancaster in a 1973 Coachmen trailer that belonged to his father. If Lancaster’s 38-foot rig with leather furniture is Park Place, Swenson’s is Mediterranean Avenue. The 23-foot metal box is as cramped as economy class, with just enough space for a double bed, a television and a La-Z-Boy recliner. There is a galley kitchen and a bathroom about the size of an airliner lavatory.
The trailer’s windows are blacked out with foil and brown paper bags so Swenson can sleep during the day. To muffle the constant din of aircraft, he bought a white-noise machine — a small tape player with a recording that sounds like a washing machine. Swenson works out at a nearby 24-Hour Fitness, where he showers to conserve his trailer’s limited water supply.
Inside the Coachmen, the wood paneling and storage cabinets are covered with photos of Amanda and Noah, whom Swenson returns to about 11 days a month. He keeps in touch via a computer webcam.
“When my tires leave the driveway of my house in Fresno,” Swenson said, “the only thing I can think about is getting back to my family.”
For several years, clusters of RVs were scattered around the airport’s parking lots until LAX officials decided to consolidate them in Lot B. Now operating as an organized camp overseen by the airport, it has an unofficial mayor, a code of conduct and residency requirements, including background checks, regular vehicle inspections and proof of employment at an air carrier.
“There might be a few other places like this nationally, but I think this is rather unique,” said Michael Biagi, who heads the land-use division at Los Angeles World Airports.
Today, the colony has more than 100 residents — mostly men — from around the country, including captains, first officers, mechanics, flight attendants, support staff and employees of air cargo companies. There are at least two married couples, who work as flight attendants. About 10 people are on a waiting list.
Lot B’s attractiveness is partly the result of the decade-long decline in air travel brought about by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the outbreak of SARS — severe acute respiratory syndrome — in 2003 and the deepest recession since World War II.
Salaries for pilots, mechanics and other airline workers have plummeted. Captains like Lancaster have been demoted to first officer, losing hard-earned seniority and forcing them out of plum assignments at airports close to home. Lancaster, who came to LAX from Seattle about 18 months ago, estimates that his reduction in rank cost him about $30,000 a year, roughly 20% of his pay.
Rather than quit their jobs or uproot their families for what could be a temporary stint in Los Angeles, workers have settled in Lot B, where the rent is only $60 a month.
“They’d probably be out of a job otherwise,” said Doug Rogers, a 62-year-old United Airlines mechanic from Utah, who is the colony’s acting mayor. “You can’t maintain a household elsewhere and afford a home here in this economic climate. The airline industry is fragile right now. You just don’t know what is going to happen.”
Rogers has lived at LAX for about seven years in a 26-foot camper built on a Ford truck chassis. He and his wife own a house in Stansbury Park, a semi-rural community of 2,500 just north of Salt Lake City.