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The Crash Pad Life: Not Everything About Flying Is Glamorous

The Secret Life of Airline Flightcrew

Its a love, hate relationship.

Everybody needs a place to crash, even pilots. It’s a terrible pun but the crashpadding lifestyle has removed much of the glamour that used to surround the flying profession.

Most pilots I discuss the subject of crash pads with behind the flight deck door view them as a necessary evil. Significant percentages of pilots and cabin crew members in the majors and at regional airlines choose to live away from their bases. Many factors drive this decision but by and large the one factor that comes up time and time again on the flight deck is “Its the economy stupid.”

Aircraft on Approach to LAX 24R

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of QOL

Right or wrong the cost of living in the places that most airlines (major/regional) have established crew bases are in some of the costliest places in America to work.  New York City (DAL, UAL, AAL, JBL), San Francisco (UA/AAL), the list goes on SEA, FLL, BOS, LAX, DEN, ORD etc, etc, etc. Its always costlier living near a large metropolitan areas and just about every airline domicile is in one. Commute times, rent prices, taxes and the amount of land or square feet in a home you can purchase are also significantly affected by living in these areas.

And lets not forget that pilot pay and flight attendant pay has been subjected to numerous concessions since 9/11 till very recently. Many aircrew members lost significant percentages of their income in the recession, some lost their homes, and many have been impacted especially at the regional level where an entry-level First Officer was paid less to fly a jet aircraft than a worker flipping burgers at the same Seattle airport (due to local minimum wage laws – that did not apply to contract workers).

Departure Lounge in CYVR Vancouver, BC

The situation produced a large income disparity between crew members at different levels. Regional crew members still had to subsist, pay rent and operate out of expensive locations while many crew members at the majors have decided to venture far afield from the location of their domicile to find the best “QOL” quality of life for their families.

Most major companies have contractually adjusted their schedules to include a certain percentage of “commutable pairings” Which means that the start of a crew members trip is during the later morning or afternoon hours to allow a commute into domicile and that the trip concludes in domicile prior to the last flights leaving in the evening. Most of these trips as you might imagine go to more senior crew members and when it comes to commuting “seniority really is everything”

Enter the crash pad mafia

Crash pads are the chosen way for airline crew members that want to or need to live “out of base” to have a cost effective location to spend a night before or after a trip.  Subsequently, the members of the airline that are the most junior will also spend 4-6 days at a time sitting reserve at their crash pad to make sure that your flight operates when a crewmember calls in sick or can’t make it to the airport. Reserve crew members spend the most time at the crash pad, because getting a hotel room for 18-20 days out of the month is cost prohibitive. The crash pad offers a ‘sensible’ alternative.

Exterior View of a SEA Airline Crew Crashpad

Crash pads typically come in two different flavors, Hot or Cold bunks.  I know all you Navy avgeeks got a kick out of that phrase. The hot bunk style as you may have guessed allows any crew member that pays the monthly fee to select an open bunk (routinely by cell phone screen lighting in the middle of the night). The cold bunk style is usually more costly and affords each crew mate the bed that they choose and pay for – some companies and proprietors have this down to a science. They even price discriminate based on top/bottom bunks and number of bunks to a room.

Part Animal House or MTV’s the Real World

It is a strange sight in someways to picture an apartment or large house teeming with adults of varying ages . No, there are no crazy party nights at the crashpads.  If you want to listen loud music, you better have your own earbuds.  Most social hours are spent in the living room or around the tv discussing the latest contract dispute, TSA shenanigans, or emergency landing over take out at the kitchen table.

Pad Common Area

As a crash padder, beware of the ‘spoiler alert’ – there is always the risk of walking in on a padmate that is watching your favorite Netflix show but you have fallen a few episodes behind on your seasonal binge.  You run screaming out of the house so you don’t hear or see anything.  The next moment you are back on the street with your luggage in tow and you forgot it was raining.  Yeah, it’s happened…and to me.

Most pads have rules catering to the rest and relaxation of fellow crew members, and in my experience the best ones have more rules about etiquette, quiet hours (24/7), washing the dishes, limiting items in the fridge and require squeegeeing the bathroom shower.  In some pads cleaning and maintenance is the responsibility of the padmates. You even have to take your turn dusting or taking out the trash.

View from New York City’s Central Park East

Finding a shred of personal space eventually becomes a necessity.  I spent hours this summer exploring lower Manhattan during my days at the crashpad.  As my reserve shift neared its end, I took the Subway into the city and strolled Central Park or the MET – NY Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Sometimes a crew member invited me to the local gym, other times I just read a book. I needed that peace and quiet.

The best crash pads offer transportation options or are within walking distance of the airport. Some airlines require crew members to cover multiple airports in a major city i.e. New York City where pilots and flight attendants can typically be dispatched from Newark, Kennedy or LaGuardia. And when a pilot or flight attendant has some downtime, the best pads are close to amenities like grocery stores, gyms, restaurants, a library, maybe the beach, a park or if you are really lucky a laundromat.

Flying is a pretty awesome job.  But it’s not always glamourous.  If you need a crash pad, be smart and do your research.  You’ll be glad you did.

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Joe Vaeth

Written by Joe Vaeth

Joe Vaeth is a life-long fan of all things aviation. Currently an airline pilot, his background includes over 10 years of flying C-130s for the U.S. Air Force and glider flying along the front range of the Colorado Rockies. He resides in Southern California with his wife and three children and has recently taken up cider brewing. He also enjoys, bike riding, kite flying & aerial photography.

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