Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Layover Routine

As much as newer flight instructors like to gripe about their job, few realize that it may be the last job in their life that allows them to sleep in their own bed every night. After flight instructing, most pilots spend a significant portion of their lives away from home. At most airlines, day trips comprise a rather small portion of the flying, and it is a senior pilot indeed that can hold a line with no overnights. The rest of us fly trips that range anywhere from two to six days long - or, for international flying, even longer. At my airline, the vast majority of the Megawhacker trips are four days long. A typical schedule has one such trip each week, so many of our pilots are spending 150 nights per year away from home.

The shortest a layover is normally scheduled for is nine hours. Now, you need to understand that this does not mean nine hours at the hotel. It means nine hours from release time (15 minutes after block-in) until show time (45 minutes before block-out). Hotel transportation to and from the airport can eat up an hour or more when we stay far from the airport or when the van is late (dismally often). Finding a bite to eat at an ungodly hour can take time. You need to allow time in the morning to shower, groom, and dress. A nine hour layover actually means six hours of sleep or so. If followed by an easy day that might be enough, but most airlines consider only legality when building their schedules. A 14 hour duty day followed by a nine hour rest period followed by another 14 hour duty day is legal, and it does happen. The airlines claim that's safe, but I doubt too many CEOs would put their families on a flight where they knew the pilots will be making their eighth landing of the day in tough weather on six hours of sleep.

Fortunately, nine hour "combat rest" is a pretty rare occurrence for Megawhacker pilots at my airline (it's more common on the Miniwhacker). Most of our layovers are 12 to 17 hours, with the occasional 36 hour mini vacation. These layovers let you eat and get well rested with time left over to spend as you please. Given how much we're away from home, everybody has their own routine for spending their spare time.

The first thing I do after getting into my room is shedding the monkey suit (ie, my uniform). I really don't know why, but after a day in uniform it really feels good to put on civies. Maybe I'm allergic to polyester. I pack one or two pairs of clothes for four day trips, depending on how lengthy each layover is, plus shorts and a t-shirt for working out and maybe some swim trunks if the weather is nice.

At the end of a long day of flying, scoring some grub is job one. I've discussed this in a previous post so I won't beat a dead horse too hard, but finding food late at night can be a real challenge at some layovers. Of course, if it's that late you're probably tired enough to fall asleep on a grumbling stomache. Many crew members pack food with them, at least for the first few days. I've started to do this myself lately. It's far easier on the pocket book than eating out all the time, it's mostly better for you, and it eliminates the problem of having to run into the terminal for food and dashing back to the plane on a 30 minute turn.

Many crewmembers consider exercise to be a requirement for every layover. I find this to be most prevalent among svelte young flight attendants, even though the aging potbellied pilots are far more in need of it. Really, our job is so sedentary that any exercise you get is going to make a big improvement to your long term health. Most of our hotels have exercise rooms, although the quality of the equipment varies.

Of course, many crewmembers make a point of regularly partaking in the "16 oz workout" - repeatedly lifting their favorite adult beverage in the hotel bar. Stricter company alcohol policies and FAA enforcement have cut down on the drinking on short overnights, but on longer layovers there's plenty of time for a brew or two. Crew hotels often have contracts with more than one airline, so it's a good place to meet pilots from other airlines. You won't have trouble recognizing who they are, particularly if you're in Sacramento on R&B night (they're the only middle aged white guys wearing jeans in a sea of sharply dressed, predominantly black younger folks).

Many pilots and FAs bring their computers with them. For most, it's for entertainment and staying in touch with the fam. A few of the smartest crewmembers have businesses on the side that they can work on during their layovers. I volunteer for our union in a few different capacities and tend to do this work on the road. Of course, I started this blog as something for me to do on layovers, but I've recently found that I do more of my blogging at home between trips.

I personally like getting out and exploring at layovers. I've done a lot of hiking around Helena, and also at Missoula, Sun Valley, Butte, Boise, and others. I've rented a car in Redmond and Reno to drive up into the mountains to hike. I've been waiting for a long layover on a nice day in Arcata with a cool crew to take them sailing. Every time I'm in Spokane, I walk downtown for superb BBQ and peach cobbler at Chicken-N-More.

When weather or my own sloth keeps me indoors, I tend to read a lot, assuming I've brought a good book with me. Otherwise I chat with friends online and get myself into a funk over the state of the industry by reading Flightinfo. I don't watch very much TV, though. I usually end up watching CNN and that puts me into a funk over the state of the whole world.

I find that it's a lot easier to go to sleep if I'm not worried about whether I'm going to wake up. I always request a wakeup call if we have an early van, but they're not 100% reliable so I set both my watch and cell phone alarm clocks. Once in a while all three will go off simultaneously, which is good for getting me out of bed quick.

I usually give myself 30 minutes to shower, get dressed, and pack. That maximizes my sleep time and forces me to wake myself fully to get through my morning routine in time. If we're at the rare overnight that gives you free breakfast, I'll allow extra time for that - you don't want to give up free food! Many people get up early to brew coffee in the room's coffeemaker. I don't care for instant coffee so I don't bother. I've heard of people bringing oatmeal or other hot cereal and using the coffeemaker to heat water to cook it with. There are other layover tricks, such as draping wet towels over the heater to act as a humidifier.

Before I leave my room, I take one last lap to make sure I didn't leave anything. It's really easy to do - I've forgotten my ID badge twice in three years, among other things. Then it's down to the van, hopefully on time so your fellow crewmembers aren't scowling at you when you board.


Ryan said...

Have you done any STS overnights yet?
I assume you guys do the thru sequence to LAX and back, i.e. SEA/STS/LAX/STS?


Sam said...

No Santa Rosa overnights yet, I was supposed to have some last bid but traded those trips away - not that I was trying to avoid Santa Rosa, I've heard it's a really nice layover. I'd have to check the bid packet to figure out what the usual sequence is, but I don't have it handy now. What you said seems logical, though.