If you arrive two hours before your flight as the airlines recommend - and you do, right? - it gives you plenty of time for people watching. Among the various subgroups of travelers you expect to find, there are almost always a few pilots standing around in uniform, often with pained expressions. Some of these may be "deadheading" - that is, being repositioned by their airline and getting paid for their time - but the majority are generally commuting to or from work on their own time. Commuting is the least favorite aspect of many pilots' lives, but is sometimes better than the alternative. The airline pilot's ability to live hundreds or even thousands of miles from his place of work is alternatively praised and bemoaned by those enduring the grind.
Very few airlines require their pilots to live at or near their domicile. They only require that pilots report for duty at the correct time and place; how to get there is up to the pilot. If you live in base, or within a hundred miles or so, you get to work just like everyone else: jump in your car (or as in my case, hop on the bus and train). Those who live outside driving distance are in the unique position of being able to fly to work, using their non-rev pass and jumpseating benefits. To an outsider, it all seems terribly convenient. After all, you could live anywhere in the world! What few realize is this travel is done on the pilot's own time, and is on a space-available basis. This adds considerably to the time and stress load of commuting.
The reasons that pilots commute to work are varied. For starters, airlines don't always put their hubs in places that pilots want to live. By its very nature, a hub will either be in a geographically central location ("flyover land") or one of the largest (and most expensive) coastal cities. Some people are happy to live in places like Detroit, Memphis, Newark, Houston, Dallas, Minneapolis, or Chicago - but some are not. Some people can afford to live in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, or New York - but many cannot, especially on junior FO pay. For these pilots, commuting is the key to living better or more affordably.
Other pilots have put down deep roots in a community and do not care to move simply because they got a new job. Many have young families they do not wish to uproot. Some have spouses that refuse to move. For these pilots, commuting is the key to a happier family life.
Finally, some pilots didn't intend to commute but that's the hand that life dealt them. Some airlines - regionals especially - are notorious for opening and closing bases at the drop of a hat. Some airlines, faced with financial trouble, have abruptly withdrawn from what was once a primary market and crew base (ie USAirways and Pittsburg). When faced with an unstable situation, it would be foolishness to move around regularly at the whims of the airline. For these pilots, commuting provides a measure of stability to their lives.
These are all situation where the ability to commute can improve a pilot's quality of life, but of course commuting exacts its own toll on quality of life. The decision to commute involves carefully calculating precisely which option sucks less. To begin with, commuting is enormously draining on your free time. The flight times involved are the very least of it. There's the time spent in airports waiting for flights and in hotel rooms or crashpads waiting for your trip to begin. Most airlines have a "commuter clause" in their contract that require you have two flights with seats available that arrive before your show time; depending on the flight loads and frequencies along your route, this could result in commuting into domicile many hours or even days before your trip. You generally can't count on jumpseats unless you're flying on your own airline and are fairly senior, or have an odd route with little competition from other commuters. Weather can further complicate things. This all assumes a single-leg commute; if you make it a multi-leg commute with a connection through a busy hub, the time wasted and stress caused increase exponentially.
Commuting can further decrease quality of life by forcing a pilot to bid solely on the basis of "commutability." To a commuter, the only criteria to judge a trip by is report time and release time. The commuter looks for a late report time, so they can commute to their domicile in the morning, and an early release time, so they can hopefully make it home that night. All the other things that pilots typically bid for - pay, productivity, time off, weekends off, lack of circadian swaps - are utterly secondary. Only when you are ultra-senior in your seat can you hope for a line that's both commutable and good.
Commuting can be expensive. When you're junior and unable to hold a "commutable" schedule, you end up spending a lot of nights at your domicile before and after trips. You either pay $40-80 per night for a crew rate at a nearby motel, or get a crashpad shared with other commuters for $150-300 a month. If you're an unfortunate soul condemned to commuting to reserve - the ninth circle of Commuter Hell - you'll end up spending a truly depressing amount of time in your crashpad. Avoiding this situation has caused many commuters to defer upgrades or transitions to better-paying equipment until they could hold a line, another major cost.
Given all this, it makes sense to avoid commuting if at all possible. One solution I've seen from many pilots is refreshingly old-fashioned: commute by car, like everyone else! You can live quite a ways from your base and make it work; after all, we're usually talking one roundtrip per week. For reserve, you'll need to be a two-hour drive away from the airport. Even the most wretched places to live generally have nice places 100 miles away. You could work in Newark and live in upstate New York; you could work in Detroit and live in Ann Arbor. Many pilots live near a small airport that has regional flights to their domicile; if the flight loads merit, they fly; otherwise they drive. It's a nice hybrid method that makes commuting more palatable.
I've managed to avoid commuting for the most part. My first few months at Horizon, I was living in LA while on reserve up in Portland. As commutes go this was an easy one: multiple direct flights to Portland from Burbank (which I lived next to) and LAX, as well as tons of easy connecting flights on Southwest. All the same, sitting on reserve in a crashpad away from home was tough, and Dawn didn't see me nearly as much as she'd like to. That plus our lack of roots in LA, the lower cost of living in Portland, and having friends in the Pacific Northwest made the decision to move an easy one. When I was hired at NewCo, we moved specifically for the MSP base. It was tough to leave the PNW but getting closer to family was important to us. While the townhouse was for sale, though, I traveled between Minneapolis and Portland enough to qualify as a semi-commuter; seeing the heavy loads on that route made me glad I wasn't doing it full time or long term.
I wrote most of this post Monday morning at gate F4 in Minneapolis, attempting to get to Detroit to start a trip. Minneapolis-Detroit is one of the toughest commutes in RedCo's system. Although there are frequent flights between the two hubs, they're often packed and there are literally hundreds of other commuters vying for a limited number of jumpseats. Many of NewCo's pilots have done this commute for a few months until their seniority can hold a Minneapolis base; fortunately I held MSP from the very start as both a FO and Captain. I'm commuting this week on a one-time basis as the result of a trip trade I did last week. I was originally scheduled to work this weekend, but then the weather reports started indicating that I was going to miss the best weekend of the autumn. My dad mentioned he wouldn't mind doing one last motorcycle ride of the season, so I found a Detroit trip starting on Monday to trade for my Minneapolis trip starting Saturday. I had a spectacular ride through southwest Wisconsin with my dad and Dawn on Saturday, but Monday I paid the piper. The flights were all oversold, prompting me to list for a 8:30am flight to make my 3:00pm report time. That flight went out with full passengers and all cockpit jumpseats and extra flight attendant jumpseats full, and I still had two standbys stranded above me on the list. The 10:05 flight was shaping up the same way, and my last-chance 11:25 flight was even more oversold. I was picking up my phone, getting ready to make my "commuter policy" call to crew scheduling and beg for a positive space seat on the 11:25, when the gate agent called my name. A seat had opened up! I grabbed my bags and trudged down the jetway to hunt down the last few remaining bits of overhead bin space. I sighed in relief that I made it on, and gave silent thanks that I don't have to do this every week.