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You Think You Have a Bad Commute?

I live in a suburb of Washington, D.C., and heavy rush hour traffic is a common source of complaint around here.

I live in a suburb of Washington, D.C., and heavy rush hour traffic is a common source of complaint around here. Downtown office workers often have drives that are routinely in excess of an hour and sometimes far longer.

A long commute is a fact of life for a large percentage of airline pilots and flight attendants. I used to have a seven-mile drive to the airport, and I didn't know how good I had it. It was a mere 30 minutes from walking out my front door to signing in on the crew room computer. I flew with guys who commuted in from Chicago or Miami or the west coast (one guy lived in Peru!) and I always felt bad for them when we ended a trip. Chances are I'd be back home before they even boarded their flight home. Living at my domicile easily saved me half a day of travel on either end of a trip.

That's all changed for me now. I currently fly out of New York, but I still live in northern Virginia. My commute to work isn't bad as airline commutes go, but it still adds a minimum of three hours on both sides of a trip (and that's if I cut it close at the beginning or just get lucky with schedules at the end). I don't usually cut it that close when going to work — being late is really frowned upon in this profession.

On one occasion I took a 6:30 a.m. flight even though I didn't have to be in New York until 5 p.m. That's because every flight that day was overbooked except that first early morning flight, and I couldn't take a chance. Another time there was a winter storm warning for the day of my trip, so I went to work a day early and got a hotel room (at my expense).

Just yesterday I felt like I struck gold. The last flight of my trip was scheduled to get in at 2:50 p.m. and I planned to commute on the next flight home, which was at 6:30. But we arrived twenty minutes early, which made it possible for me to just barely catch the 2:50 flight home, saving me three hours and forty minutes. So sweet!

You may wonder why anyone would put himself in this situation. Why not just move to the city you fly out of? It's certainly something to consider, and many pilots do just that. For me it's just a personal preference. I grew up in the D.C. area and I have family here (three brothers, parents) and many friends. I like it here.

At my previous airline we had pilots based in Boston, and that base was closing. The pilots were moved to New York, Cincinnati or Washington, and the junior guys did not get their choice of base. Not long after, the New York base closed and now those pilots were forced to go to Cincinnati or Washington. Within a year, the Cincinnati base closed too, and everyone had to come back to Washington.

How practical would it have been to actually move your residence each time one of these bases closed? (Answer: not at all) Although this example is extreme, many pilots get "involuntarily displaced" at some point in their flying career.

The one thing we've got going for us is that we don't make this commute five days a week. It's probably more like five times a month, and that makes it a little easier to take. If I had to do it daily, I'd move for sure.
About Steve Satre
Steve Satre

Steve Satre got his pilot’s license in 1977 and became a full-time commercial pilot in 1993. He currently flies the Boeing 757/767 on both international and domestic routes. The opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect the views of his employer or the Smithsonian Institution.

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