For cabin staff it works the same way. A senior flight attendant might grab the same coveted layovers in Athens or Singapore that a senior captain does. There are, however, fewer duty-time restrictions and written agreement protections for flight attendants, and that they tend to figure additional days. A pilot might fly three or four multi-day trips in a month, while a flight attendant might fly seven.
Should you therefore extrapolate that the largest planes on the longest routes are operated by the most senior and most experienced crews? Not always. One factor is the airport you are based out of. The larger carriers typically offer six or seven base cities to choose from. Certain of these bases are more preferable to pilots than others, and so seniority becomes a relative thing. I’m based in New York, for example, which at my carrier tends to be the least desirable, and therefore the most junior, base. This allows me to fly international routes even though my overall seniority is low. And not all pilots enjoy international flying, even if it pays better.
Many pilots are based—or to use an ugly-sounding airline word, domiciled—in cities other than those in which they live, and will “commute,” as we call it, back and forth. More than 50 percent of crewmembers commute, pilots and flight attendants alike. I’m one of them. I’m based out of New York, but I live in Boston. Although commuting is a privilege that allows crews to live where they please, it can also be practical. If you’re a regional airline pilot making $30,000 and trying to support a family, living in an expensive metropolitan area like San Francisco or New York City would be very difficult. Also, aircraft and base assignments change frequently. The opportunity to commute keeps employees from having to uproot and move with every new bid posting.
Commuting can be stressful. Employees ride standby, and company rules require us to allow for backup flights in case of delays. This can mean having to leave home several hours before sign-in, or in many cases, a full day prior. Crewmembers ordinarily rent a part-time residency known as a crash pad, wherever they’ll keep, if needed, on either finish of a commute. (The décor and sanitary standards of the average crash pad are a topic for another time.) Others, when it’s affordable, rent hotel rooms.
One way to cut down on commutes is to bid international trips. Overseas rotations tend to be longer, with some lasting ten days or more, and you don’t fly as many of them. An international category pilot might commute in only two or three times each month, while a pilot on domestic runs does it five or six times.
My own commute, with barely forty minutes of flying time, is as painless as they come. Multihour commutes through two or more time zones, however, are not the least bit uncommon. I’ve met pilots who commute to New York from Alaska, the Virgin Islands, and France. Legend has it there was once an Eastern Airlines captain who was domiciled in Atlanta but lived in New Zealand.