Pilot Lifestyle
Slow times at busy airports
December 28, 2010

Over the years, I’ve spent an unusually large amount of time in airports.  Whether I’m going on vacation, piloting, or commuting back and forth, there is always down-time between flights.  When it is less than an hour, I’m usually too busy to notice.  At two hours, I start to get a little restless.  My record sit was a nine hour stretch of boredom on a snowy day in Boston.

Most airlines have private areas for crews to congregate between flights.  There are usually a few comfortable chairs, a quiet area, and a few large televisions.  But, what if I’m flying through an airport without a crew lounge?  Killing time becomes more of a challenge.

I start with the obvious things that even the most amateur travelers have mastered.  I use my laptop to catch up on email, Facebook, Twitter and other various on-line time wasters.  If I can find a quiet area, I’ll talk on the cellphone.  Then, there’s the trusty novel.  Nothing passes time like a good book.

Every once in awhile, I’ll stroll through one of the many news shops at the airport.  I’m not sure why, because nothing ever changes at these shops.  Don’t believe me?  Check for yourself the next time you’re in an airport news store:

  • You will be greeted by candy in front of the register.
  • On one wall, you will see snacks and big bags of trail-mix.  A sign will advertise that you can buy two bags for only four times what you would pay for it at your local grocery store.
  • On another wall, you will find medicine, toiletries, and personal grooming tools all individually wrapped and hanging on metal pegs.  That packaging must be very expensive.  Two individually wrapped aspirin cost about what I’d pay for a whole bottle.  They should re-name it the “that will teach you to leave home without it” wall.
  • You will also find t-shirts, candy, and stuffed animals available for last minute souvenir purchase.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone actually buy one.
  • The rack of novels always features the top ten New York Times best sellers.  I admit, it is nice to see the most popular paperbacks all on one shelf.  They are sold for cover price.  At one of the major brands, if you purchase a book, you can return it within a few weeks and receive back half the purchase price.  Definitely a great deal for crew members.  (Although being a cheap pilot, I still prefer the library over paying half price for a book.  But, in a bind, it works!)
  • Then, there’s the magazine rack.  In the last store, there was a sign warning to “please pay for your magazine before enjoying it.”  Seems to me there is a fine line between enjoying and previewing.  So, I picked up a magazine and previewed an article before deciding to purchase.  As I read, I was mindful that the magazine police could have ejected me from the store at any moment.

All those things only pass a little bit of time.  Longer sits require more drastic measures.  As I sat in the Denver airport on Christmas Day, I started recalling some of the greatest airport time killers of all time.

Long Walks

Walking around airports can be fun.  At most airports, there is a walking alternative to the train or bus.  Sometimes, I’ll wind through less traveled hallways for an hour or two just to see where I can end up.  To me, it’s a little bit intriguing to walk and learn how all the different terminals connect together.  Plus, I can usually find a meal in a different restaurant.  After exploring, I walk back.  If I’ve walked to far, I hop on the train or bus to go back to my terminal.

Off Site

Sometimes, the break  is just too long to sit at the airport.  So, it’s time to venture off campus.  If you’re delayed and feeling adventurous, here are some of the more fun excursions.  However, don’t forget if you leave the terminal, you’ll have to go back through security!

  • At Boston’s Logan Airport, a bus goes around the terminal loop and stops at the T (subway).  Just a few stops down is the Feneuil Hall Marketplace.  The New England Aquarium is also close.  Heck, the entire city of Boston is within a few stops.  I’ve killed a lot of time in Boston.
  • The newest Smithsonian Air and Space Museum is between runways on the south end of the Dulles Airport.  You may have to take a cab, but, it’s worth it.
  • With a long delay in Newark or Detroit, well, just stay at the airport.
  • If you’re ever stuck at LAX, there’s an In-and-Out Burger on the approach end to the north runways.  There is a parking lot with shuttle service just across the street.  Hop on the bus, tip the driver, and you can experience California’s burger obsession.  Just make sure you learn the lingo before you order… double double, fries, and shake anyone?  If you want to be really cool, ask them for a sticker to put on your car.
  • With time to kill in Atlanta, remember that the original Chick-Fil-A is only a few miles from the airport.  Well worth the cab fare to make the pilgrimage to the home of the chicken sandwich.
  • At Chicago O’Hare, the Hilton has a very nice full service gym.  You can walk over, work out, shower and return to the airport rejuvenated.  This is especially helpful if you just came from LAX or Atlanta.

The Best Time Killer Ever

I’ve never participated in what I consider the best airport time killer of all time.  However, to this day, thinking about it still makes me smile.  So, I’ll share the story with you.

You probably remember that years ago I flew for a commuter airline out of Boston.  The schedules were horrendous.  On a normal day, we would have three to four hour sits in Boston.  Bad weather made it exponentially worse.

Also, keep in mind, regional airline pilots were poorly paid and pilots are generally cheap.

So, there was one thrifty captain who made the most of his sits in Boston.  Have you seen the “SmarteCarts” at airports?  Passengers rent them to push around their luggage.  Back then, I think it cost a few dollars to rent the cart.  But, twenty five cents was a security deposit.  If you returned the cart, the machine spit out a quarter.  Most people didn’t return the carts.  Do you see where this is going?

This guy, in full uniform, would roam the airport looking for orphaned carts.  Every four he strung together earned him a dollar.  He’d do it for hours.  I can only imagine what passengers thought when they saw him scurrying to gather the carts.  Sometimes, he’d even offer to return the cart for passengers unaware they were due a quarter.  It was fun to watch.  I always wondered if a “turf war” would ensue if another pilot wanted to break into the cart returning business.

SFO International Terminal

I wrote most of this entry while killing time in the San Francisco airport.  Hopefully, by the time you read this, I’ll be on my way home.

Did I miss anything?  Please comment with your favorite ways to kill time between flights.

About author

Renewed Pilot

I've endured a roller coaster career in the U.S. Aviation Industry. Currently flying the 737 on my third try with the same legacy carrier, I have also flown for a regional, fractional and start-up carrier. My piloting experience includes the 737, A320, 727, Citation Excel, Citation Bravo, Saab 340 and many light singles and twin engine aircraft. I reside in the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee.

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There are 5 comments

  • Crossland says:

    I especially love your advice about “Detroilet” … stay in the airport. HA!

  • Jesus Calderon says:

    Hi Brian, thanks for the “near-airports entertainment guide”! It’ll sure be useful for a lot of people on the east coast due to the snow! One of my favourite ways of killing arpt time is to walk around the terminals looking for the best aircraft spotting window/terrace, then with a handheld radio receiver (icom R20) I listen to ATC-pilots comunications while looking at the actual aircrafts. Its fair to say that sometimes, this behaviour looks like a little bit suspicious to the security personnel though…
    Another airplane geeks way of killing time is, in case you knew in advance that there is a internet live streeming webcam in the airport, try to find it and to look at it “from the other side” or even if possible call to an also-airplane-geek friend or family mamber and tell them to try to find you “live” through the webcam. I did it once in Zurich, where there was a viewer controlled cam pointing to the spotters terrace…and that was fun!!
    Thanks for the post and enjoy your time at home, see you maybe….new years eve and january 1st 2011?? For me…seniority being involved…thats for sure!

  • Beverly says:

    Your dad and I usually hold up at a bar! Great people watching.

  • Cedarglen says:

    Hello Brian. I realize that this a very old post and that you and others are not likely to see my reply. Still… I’ve had your blog on my list for at least a year, but did not see much and am just now reading through the archives… I’m greatly amused by posts, here and elsewhere, about what crews do during long ‘sits’ between flight legs. The suggestions offered here are great and I was seriously amused by the captain that retrieved wayward luggage carts for a modest profit. (He won’t have to worry about grocery money, should he ever endure a furlough! Brilliant.) More seriously, many in your profession have far more downtime hours in a month than do the folks who command a desk or punch a time clock five days each week. I know several pilots (and a few FAs) of long experience who have used much of their down time in very productive pursuits: Several have earned post-graduate degrees, usually in fields unrelated to aviation. Some have developed marketable, professional-level skills and could easily support their families should a furlough ground them, or, God forbid, a health condition caused them to lose their medical certificate. All are born flyers who would prefer flying to anything else, yet have interests and perhaps learned talents far removed from airplane driving. As you’ve often noted, your transition from United to Virgin was a difficult one, but one that included a growing family, additional maturity and eventually escaping the “I’m a real Airline Pilot” ego presence. It is your primary profession and chosen field, but even in the comfort of an airline like Virgin, your security is limited. You must have some other interests, beyond flying and family. Some of that otherwise wasted downtime, usually spend away from your family, CAN be put to better use, and without compromising any of your valuable family time. Most of today’s post-graduate education programs include huge measures of independent self-study and reading, and most interactions with professors and/or the school are processed online. With the possible exception of some high-end physical sciences, at least 90%-95% of an advanced degree program CAN be completed electronically and, within reason, entirely on your own schedule. You might want to consider such a thing… In any case, learning something or working toward a professional degree, has got to be a bit more interesting than staring at the ceiling or the ‘boob tube.’
    I’m enjoying reading my way through your archives and I Look forward to reading your new posts – whenever they arrive. Best wishes, -C.

    • Thanks for the comment. I have often considered getting another degree through an on-line school. That is very good advice.

      Also, although many others probably won’t see the comment on this post, I’m notified no matter how old the entry. Again, thanks.

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