Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Starving First Officer's Guide to Dining

So you're a new first officer at a regional airline, struggling to make ends meet. You're also a young, busy person who needs to eat. Unfortunately, not only does your new job pay poorly, it also keeps you on the road four or more nights a week, often in rather expensive cities. It's a struggle to get the nourishment you need without completely starving your malnourished bank account. Take heart, my ravenous gear-throwing three-striper friend: many a pilot has been in your place, and there is a wealth of knowledge on eating cheaply in this profession. Allow me to share some of the best tips.

Learn to choke down crew meals.
I'm not sure if airline food ever was that good, even in the "Golden Age." But whatever palatability crew meals once had is gone forever. These days, you're lucky to find actual crew meals on board any airplane, and it's almost unheard of at the regionals. If your airline is like mine, the "crew meals" come out of vending machines in the crew lounges. The food is what you'd expect from any commercial vending machine, with one crucial difference: it's free! Ignore the taste. Nevermind that it's grossly unhealthy. Pay no attention to that expiration date! All you need to know is that it'll quiet your grumbling tummy and it's free.

At my airline, access to this cornucopia of saturated fats and sugary carbs is gained via a magnetic stripe card. Management keeps track of how often you swipe the card. One of my friends who saw the sheet reports that the top user so far this year, with over 100 swipes in two months, is a 22-year CRJ captain. He's making over $120/hr but he's clung to the eating habits of his youth. Bravo! This man realizes that a 14-hour duty day is a blessing in disguise, an opportunity to get breakfast, lunch, and dinner for free from the bounty of the crew room vending machine.

Savor those Snacks.
Although crew meals have gone the way of the dodo bird, the DC-8, and $200/hr captain payrates, there is still some food left on our airplanes. If you don't like peanuts, you can root around a bit to find yourself some chex mix or potato chips. If you have a long day in between crew lounges with free food, this can keep you going without resorting to (gasp) buying food.

Know Thy Discounts (at the airport).
Put your hat back on and take that Old Navy fleece pullover off, because that adorable little uniform is your ticket to savings at your local airport's eateries. When you're far from the nearest free Mr. Rib and you can't choke down one more peanut, employee discounts make overpriced airport fare a little easier on the cash. They range between 10%-30% off regular prices, so make it your personal mission to know the best deals at every airport you fly to. You can even find some freebies. When Anthony's Restaurant and Fish Bar first opened at Sea-Tac, they offered a free coffee and cup of clam chowder to any crewmember in uniform...and it drove them to the brink of bankruptcy in their very first month. I think I still have some of that chowder in storage...

Back to Basics.
Even without employee discounts, some airport restaurants offer great deals on basic a la carte items. You can get a big rice and beans plate from Maui Tacos in Boise for $1.79. It used to be a buck, but they raised the price to keep the horde of pilots from overrunning the place. It's still a good deal - you go to their salsa bar, mix in a little pico de gallo, top it off with some pineapple-chipolte sauce, and you have yourself a finger-lickin' meal for under $2. It'll also provide hours of entertainment as you and the captain lob bean-fueled stench bombs at each other across the cockpit.

Fear No Grease.
Another budget option at the airport food court is the local installment of McDonalds or other fast food joint. Sure, Morgan Spurlock was sick and fat and gross at the end of Super Size Me, but I'll bet he still coulda flown a CRJ! These options are also great for intra-cockpit fart wars.

Know thy Discounts (at the hotel.)
Hotel restaurants serve uninspired fare at price markups similar to airport restaurants, but your airline badge may be just the ticket for uninspired fare at 30% off. Hotels that have lots of airline crew running around tend to give them some decent discounts on food and sometimes even drink. This is particularly handy for the 9-hour overnights in Butte in the dead of winter. You sure as heck don't want to go scrounging for cheap food outside.

Brown Bag It.
What's that you say? You want something cheap and healthy? Pbbttth, the solar radiation will probably have you dying of cancer by age 60 anyways. But, to improve your chances of surviving into dotage, here's an option: pack your own lunch. You can pack fruits and salads and whole-grain sandwiches, fresh from your own refrigerator. You'll need a big insulated lunch bag and some industrial-sized ice packs. Even then, you may not be able to pack for an entire four day trip. Still, your first few days will be yummy and (more importantly) cheap. If you have a Canadian layover, be aware that customs officials might confiscate your food. They'd rather you take your chances with Mad Cow Disease in the local beef.

Back to College!
As an alternative to lugging around a lunch pail along with your overnight bag and flight kit and laptop bag, you can throw a few packs of ramen in your overnight bag. It got you through college, it can get you through your regional years! You just need to scrape together $10 to buy a pallet at Costco, after that it gets cheap.

Raid the Supermarket.
You don't neccessarily need to bring your dinner with you, since most layover hotels tend to be surrounded by the various trappings of american civilization, including the cavernous supermarket. Buying a whole loaf of bread with a cheese wheel and a half of ham might be going overboard, but you can usually find relatively healthy fresh sandwiches in the deli section. Save $.10 with your Ralph's card!!!

Free Food Makes Happy Hour Happy.
Don't forget, many hotel bars (and bars in general) have free or very cheap food during happy hour (generally weekdays 4pm-6pm). At our Sacramento layover, we get $1 domestic beer and $2 microbrews. I usually spring for a tasty Pyramid Hefeweizen and snack on free buffalo wings and potstickers while I visit with other crewmembers feasting for free. Half the time a Southwest guy buys my second beer. I've yet to have a United pilot do so, but I think a lot of those guys are in the same financial boat as me since management has raped and pillaged their way through UA payrates and pensions.

Suck from the public teat.
A number of our layover hotels are located in, umm, underprivledged areas. The bad news is you have to worry about being mugged. The good news is that a soup kitchen is sure to be nearby! Just make yourself look as pathetic as possible, which shouldn't be too hard after a 14 hour duty day with 8 hours of flying. I've never done this myself, but I know pilots who have. I think we can say pretty definitively that they're going to hell, but they'll go with a little more cash in their pockets!

Rumage through the nearest dumpster.
Ok, I've never done this and have never seen nor heard of a pilot who has. But it would sure make a hilarious staged photo! The first person to take a picture of themself, in uniform (hat required for pilots!), rumaging for food in a dumpster, gets a free meal on me. You can get anything you want off the dollar menu at McDonalds!


Following these tips, you should be able to survive those years flying for a regional airline. Don't worry too much about lacking the time or money to eat properly. Before you know it, you'll be a senior captain, and the only memory of these years will be your 50 extra pounds and an early heart attack!


John said...

You'd think airlines would see the connection between healthy eating habits and pilots maintaining their medical certficates, which would protect the airlines' investment in training. I mean, it's almost like they don't care!


Lauren said...

That is hands-down the funniest thing I've heard today. Keep bloggin!! :)

All the Hardways said...

Sounds yummy! I was wondering, do you keep track of how many times a month you swipe that magnetic card of yours, for that free grub in your crew lounge?

Anonymous said...

Ahh the good ol' days. Let's not forget about those broke flight attendants. I remember when I was broke as cooter!!!! Keep on bloggin!

Evan said...

There was a website - can't find it right now- happyhour.com or somthing, which had the beta on food and drink specials in quite a few major cities. Here in Minneapolis, there's thriftyhipster.com, which is fairly complete and pretty accurate.

Evan said...

oh, and for dumpster food, try googling "freegan". Like the extreme vegetarians, "vegan", only for free. These folks are pretty out there, a lot more than me (not even vegetarian), but there are a few useful ideas on scrounging.

Aviatrix said...

Sam, that's hilarious. Before I became a pilot I ate SO healthily. I remember while I was a student pilot I admitted to someone that all I had eaten that day was a bag of fig newtons and a glass of prange juice. I thought he was kidding when he said, "that's what a pilot would consider a balanced diet."

Flygirl said...

Great post Sam! I'm still laughing! Livin' the dream right?!

Anonymous said...

A 22 year CRJ Captain as in 22 years old or has been a Captain (Is the CRJ even 22 years old? haha) for 22 years old. If the Captain is 22 years old and Cpt. on the CRJ thats amazing considering your airline's upgarde times, how does one excel that fast?

Anonymous said...

Grr... Bad grammer... Here's what I meant to say: 22 year CRJ Captain as in 22 years old or has been a Captain (Is the CRJ even 22 years old? haha) for 22 years with your airline.. If the Captain is 22 years old and Cpt. on the CRJ thats amazing considering your airline's upgarde times, how does one excel that fast?

Sam said...

Anonymous -
A "22 year CRJ captain" doesn't mean they've been on the CRJ that many years, it means they've been working for my airline that long. At my airline, it takes a minimum of 15 years to hold a CRJ reserve line in Portland. Until this year, our youngest Portland-based CRJ captain was in his mid-40s. I think the youngest turboprop captain here is 28 or so.

Incidently, a captain slot requires an ATP certificate, which itself carries a minimum age of 23.

Traytable said...

"It used to be a buck, but they raised the price to keep the horde of pilots from overrunning the place."

Thanks for the best darn laugh I've had all week!!! ^_^

amulbunny said...

I used to see the Air New Zealand crews at the Trader Joes and Bristol Farms on Rosecrans near LAX. They'd load up on goodies and stuff their flight bags that they'd carry on. And they also put lots of goodies in their checked bags too.

LAX food outlets used to give employees 10% off the top of everything and so did the gift shops. But you'd go broke if you ate at Wolfgang Pucks every day.


Anonymous said...

That is freaking hilarious. Maybe it's because I have been awake for 2 days (23 1/2 hrs. of which have been on the internet), but hell you only live once, right? You didn't mention the delicious cracker, ketchup, and mustard sandwich, your grandmother that lived through the depression, taught you how to make.

Vince said...

My staple food lately as a poor starving cargo pilot flying piper cherokees is the Subway $2.50 6 Inch of the day. It doesn't quite fill, but it's enough to get through the day.

Anonymous said...

LMAO...brings back the old days for sure. If I ever see you in Sacramento, I'll buy you the second beer.