Pilot Crash Pads – Nothing New

by on February 21, 2011

There has been quite a discussioncat nap going on over at AvWeb concerning the current series of reports being aired by ABC.  The FAA Administrator has even weighed in on the subject.

The Crash-Pad Experience

It has been a bit over 20 years since I started working for Northwest Airlines, but I can still remember those first few years. The pay during the initial training phase was abysmal even for a major airline – even below the first year pay rate. An ex-flight attendant was arranging lodging for trainees by contracting with apartment complexes to rent unfurnished 2-bedroom units and then renting furniture to put in the units. It was a pretty good deal and splitting the rent 4 ways made the costs bearable. After finishing training I moved into a large house owned by the same individual. There had to be 25 beds located throughout the place. There were almost a dozen people continually in residence since most of us were just out of training and sitting reserve (on call). I moved out of there after about 3 months – just after the police came around looking for the owner. Something about not paying a few bills.

My next ‘pad’ was in another apartment complex. It was a 2-bedroom unit shared with 4 other pilots. I bounced around several of these places for the first 2-3 years with the airline. I finally made it into a commuter pad in a complex across the street from the Mall of America. This place had been in operation since the complex had been built in the 1960s.  I stayed there as a member until the complex was torn down – a result of the north-south runway being built at KMSP.

We had four to six pilots in that unit – two bedrooms with two beds in each. It was rare that we had more pilots than beds for a night since all but one of us were holding a set schedule by then, but it did happen. The last guy to arrive got the living room sofa. I stayed  at this crash pad for about 15 years, even when I was senior enough to hold an international schedule with one trip a month. It was just more comfortable having a familiar place to go. When the light rail system went into operation with it’s terminals at the airport and the Mall you could ride it rather than getting a cab or incurring the costs with keeping a commuter car parked at the airport.

When the complex was torn down I started using a hotel room. I always commuted to my assigned base the day before a trip was to leave. I just didn’t want the added stress of trying to commute the same day as a trip started – especially when that first leg was 10-12 hours long.  Living on the west coast and flying out of the central time zone usually made that same-day commute impossible anyway.

The Situation Now

The first-year pay rate for a First Officer at one major airline is a bit over $56/hr no matter what airplane is being flown. The second year rate for a  mainline jet (DC-9/MD-88) raises that rate to about $76/hr. If the pilot is on reserve the guarantee is 70 hours of flight pay per month. (If you fly more hours you will get higher pay.)  Subtract from that amount all of our usual taxes and you get about 35-45,000 a year. Then subtract union dues, insurance premiums, education loans, flight school loans, car payments, etc., etc. The exposé that was run referred to regional airline pilots – who are paid a fraction of the pay rate of the major airlines. Do you still wonder why entry-level pilots are using crash pads and lounges to get some sleep?

Yes, there’s nothing that says you can’t move to where you are based and live there – if you can afford to move your belongings to the new location and set up a home. There are reasons why certain domiciles are junior (the pilot bases with the lowest seniority pilots). Those places either have too high a cost of living or they are in locations where you wouldn’t want to live unless you grew up there.

One of the few remaining perks of being an airline crew member is the ability to live where you want without much regard to where your flying is based. Commuting to work in another part of the country adds a day or two to each trip that you fly, but it gives needed stability to your family.

The media is in the business of selling papers and commercial time. They will sensationalize whatever they can if it will accomplish that goal. The use of crash pads and sleeping lounges to catch some needed rest is not going to change. There will still be five-flight days that start early and finish late. And the long work day will be followed by a 10-hour layover that starts when the aircraft door opens that night to off-load the passengers and stops when it closes for the next morning’s flight. There will still be pilots commuting across the country to go to work so that their families can live in a stable location that they an afford.

Pilot crash pads will always be part of the ‘airline pilot experience’. The only difference that you will find is the quality of the quarters. And that is directly related to the level of experience (read pay rate) of the pilots occupying them.

Cedarglen February 22, 2011 at 8:37 am

Sir, I hear you about the crash pads! I have NOT seen any TV crap about this (have not owned a TV for >10 years.) and know only what I read here and there. Are they necessary? Yes. Are they fun? No. Are they ‘safe,?’ My best guess is yes, if used responsibly. Stretching the envelope is not good, but mature pilots don’t try it more then once. Commuting must be an awful pain, but with only one or two trips a month, you can afford to arrive both on time and well rested. It is called professional responsibility. I agree that the junior pilots at some of the feeder lines are abused, perhaps badly. And the solution is: [Please share your thoughts.] I don’t know how to fix it, but I DO want sharp, well rested pilots driving my airplane. Every trip. Much enjoy your blog, but the posts are too infrequent.
-Craig

Tracy February 22, 2011 at 9:14 am

Craig,

Thanks for the comment. I’m working on the post frequency – living consistently in the same time zone is going to help tremendously.
Solution? It’s really hard to come up with something that is workable other than to pay the junior pilots a wage that doesn’t qualify them for food stamps. Maybe the proposed new rest rules will make a difference. The airlines sure don’t want the change. Any change in the rules will cost them money. One major airline estimated that the rules would require an additional 2500 pilots to be added to the current airline pilot population. That sounds to me like that current pilot population is being worked to death – especially at the junior level flying the smaller aircraft.

tracy

Cedarglen February 22, 2011 at 11:52 pm

Tracy, of course, you are (or were) senior enough to enjoy some good schedules. I hope that the rights and lifestyle remains. Let’s also remember that the juniors do not always enjoy your A++ perfet commuting options. I am not worried about the 15+ year tenured folks who commute, but I really do worry about the very junior pilots that are *forced* into it. Personal and family life gets dumped, in favor of fling hours and at great expense. I well understand that you fly as FO, and with 20+ years with your line, it hurts me, too. I do not have a perfect answer and the senority system prevails: The most senior move to larger airplanes, often without holding a Captain’s seat (and the responsibility) on a smaller airplane. I wonder about that. As a long-serving and often long-suffering FO, you know the drill too well. I know an experienced (female) pilot with >20k hours who spenda 90% of her working hours as a relief pilot and who has not made a ‘live’ landing in several years, save the SIM sessions. There IS a problem here and is is NOT limited to crash pads. Pilots need hands-on time with those big airplanes. If the qualifications increase, the hours of PIC time increase, I’m with you folks! I would rather have a high-hour pilot up there, than one who lucked-out on the position bids. To put it another way, I’d like to see the hours-in-type stats for every left seat driver that flies. I know, that won’t happen, but hours-in-type DO matter. That newbie with all of 10-20 hours as captain on a heavy is an issue. Let’s hope that his FO is a high-timer and knows how to drive. I know… The melding is difficult for you folks!! I know that you could (probably) enjoy a higher, even captain status, if you compromised some other things. If the long-haul FO or relief, but onw long trip per month works for you, yes yes and more yes. It may cost you a day or two, but it is better than a very junior captainsy on anything that you want to fly. After 20+ years with the same line, I hear you. Loud and clear, I hear you. Suffer. Fly when it suits you and mark your time. I’d guess that you do not want to fly beyond 60 and that you can bail at that point – should you wish. You may have captain’s rights before you leave, but what is the point of a 60-90-day retrain, for 12 month’s service? You already have the “Captaincy” skills and experience and your airplanes are safe. If you can afford it, bail while your pension money is still there. You will be more secure and those kids behind you will get some seat time, other than relift, to fillout their tickets. Yes! Major mixed feelings. I know too many who were forced out too soon. When the suff hits the fan, I want the Old Fart driving. Nuff Said.
-Craig

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