“So, you live here in Colorado but work in San Francisco?”
That’s the question everyone asks after a brief discussion about my work. Yes, I am a commuting pilot. My work week starts and ends with a flight between Colorado and California. I commute on a jet… standby… on my own time.
Over the years, I’ve endured the following commutes:
- Washington, DC to Boston, MA
- Washington, DC to New York, NY (covering LGA, JFK, and EWR)
- Washington, DC to Chicago, IL
- Nashville, TN to Denver, CO
- Denver, CO to San Francisco, CA
Those commutes encompass about half my career. The other half, I was fortunate enough to drive to work in Bangor, DC, and Denver.
Compared to some pilots, I have a relatively easy commute. San Francisco is only nine hundred miles from Denver. Some of our pilots commute all the way across the country. Others commute from smaller cities with no non-stop service… They must “two-leg it” to work. For me, there are several nonstop flights. As you continue reading, please keep in mind I’m completely aware that it could be much, much worse.
I’ve mentioned aspects of commuting in various posts over the last eighteen months. But, there’s so much more involved than I’ve discussed. Here’s a look into my mindset as I prepare for a trip.
As a general rule, if the report time is after 11:00am, I plan to commute the day of the trip.
I also generally attempt to arrive at SFO four hours before my report time. That usually leaves three to four backup flights. I like plenty of wiggle room to recover from a hiccup and still be on-time for work.
There are many factors that can change the plan. So, I always start the research the day before the trip.
The first item to check is the weather forecast in San Francisco. Any overcast layer or strong winds drastically reduces the arrival rate at SFO. When that happens, the FAA institutes a ground delay program (GDP). A GDP will hold a flight on the ground at its departure airport to avoid airborne holding. A flight from Denver might be delayed anywhere from one to three hours.
If a GDP is lurking on the horizon, I have two options:
- Go early. Just like driving to work, there’s not a lot of airline traffic early in the morning. The 6:00am flight out of Denver never gets held up by a GDP. It arrives in SFO when the arrival rate is still low. The problem? There are usually ten to twenty other airline employees traveling on the same flight.
- Plan to fly into Oakland or San Jose. Both airports have less traffic and rarely get delays for simple overcast conditions. There is public transportation from each airport to SFO. (I was treated to a cab ride once from OAK to SFO. Click this post from last year to read that story.)
I also pull up the forecast for Denver. I’m only concerned if I see thunderstorms or an approaching blizzard. The airport was designed for minimal operational delays.
After checking weather and guessing about a GDP, I check the flight schedules and loads.
If there are a lot of seats available in the cabin, my life gets a lot easier.
As pilots, we can sit in the cockpit jump seats if the cabin is full. If it comes to that, the competition can be fierce. Most aircraft have two jump seats, but many of United’s 757s only have one. (Prior to 9/11, United promised us they would add a second jump seat. Some were added, but most 757s have only the mounting bracket and no second seat. The project came to a halt just before the bankruptcy.)
If the flights are full, I try to avoid United. There are too many United commuters that bump me since the airline’s own employees rightfully have priority. On Frontier or Southwest, rarely do I see one of their own pilots commuting from DEN to SFO. Therefore, the playing field is leveled… if I show up early, I can usually secure one of the cockpit jump seats.
If the weather forecast is poor and/or all the flights are oversold, I get stressed. Ask my wife. On the afternoon before the trip, when I should be enjoying precious time with my family, my entire demeanor changes.
Some pilots take a nonchalant attitude towards commuting. They say, “If I make it, great. If not, someone else will fly the trip.” I am not one of those people. I feel accountable to show up on time for a trip. I have absolutely no desire to test our “commuter policy.” Even if I weren’t disciplined, I cannot afford to lose a whole trip’s pay. (I know what you’re thinking… cough cough, sniff sniff… but, that looks a little suspicious when it only happens when the weather is bad in SFO. Remember, I’m not discussing options here… I’m talking about how freaking stressful it can be to commute!)
I am, however, getting better and learning to channel my emotions. I’m starting to convince myself that with good planning, I should always make my trip. After all, over all these years, I’ve haven’t missed one yet. I really don’t want my kids asking “what’s wrong with daddy?” the night before a commute.
For the commute, I leave the house two and a half hours before the flight. I drive to DIA, park in the least expensive pay lot and catch a bus to the terminal. (Denver airport will not sell me an employee parking pass since VA doesn’t fly to DIA… fortunately, I get reimbursement for my parking.) I usually arrive at the gate about an hour and ten minutes before the flight.
About ninety percent of the time, I get a cabin seat or jump seat on my first choice flight. Once we pass V1 (the takeoff/abort decision speed just before liftoff), I breath a sigh of relief. Whatever happens beyond that point is totally out of my control. If we have an emergency and/or divert, I’d just call the company and let them know what happened to me.
After a quick meal and nap in SFO, I’m refreshed and ready for my trip.
On the last night of the trip, I start planning for the commute home. If I finish before 6:30pm, I can usually get out that night. While most of the country is serviced by red eyes out of SFO, the last flight leaves for Denver around 7:00pm.
Well, “planning” probably isn’t the right term. I look at the loads, but it really doesn’t matter. The way home is all about the schedule.
If the flights are full, there’s some stress. But, not nearly as much as going TO work. I really want to be home with my family… but, my wife is more understanding than the airline if I get delayed. If the commute home goes awry, I’d say it is more frustrating than stressful.
After landing and completing all my required duties, I hit the ground running for the first flight out of SFO. The biggest challenge is security. Every terminal has its own checkpoint. Since I cannot commute on VA or American out of Terminal 2, I need to exit, hustle to an adjacent terminal, and re-enter through security.
Sometimes I have an hour, but, it is usually shorter. I have run up to gates right at departure time. Sometimes, they let me on. Other times, I’ve watched planes push back without me. That is expected, but, I ALWAYS try. If I don’t make it, I go to the next flight and wait. Often, it’s in a different terminal that offers me the opportunity to go through security for the third time that day.
My wife calls commuting my part-time job. She’s right… it is a significant weekly time commitment.
I really don’t mind the time. Often, especially at the end of the long trip, it is nice to have that two and a half hours to unwind. I either read, watch television, listen to country music or nap during the flight. I also do some of my best thinking in the back of a plane. I stare off into space and go into my own little world.
What I DO mind is the stress of it all. There’s stress in planning, but also in the actual commute… getting bumped, delayed, and canceled. Like I said, I’m getting better. But, I’d be in denial if I said there was no stress.
So, for now, this is good. But, in the years ahead, something will need to change. I’m talking long term: I refuse to go the rest of my life slugging it out to get to the west coast for work. Maybe we’ll move… or, maybe my airline will open some more reasonable (cost of living) bases… or, maybe I’ll just find something completely different to do with my life.
Either way, life is too short to be stressed.