Flight Crew Reality: Travel Privileges are a Cruel Hoax


BA 747

Flight Crew Reality: Travel Privileges are a Cruel Hoax

There–I said it: travel privileges are a cruel hoax. If anyone is choosing an airline career based on the expectation of free air travel, you might as well start looking for a different job. Because the reality of crew life is this: airplanes are booked so full nowadays that non-rev travel is a frustrating, time-wasting ordeal that sucks the life out of days off.

It gets worse, too. In the past decade, every major airline has gone through dire financial restructuring. For flight crews, the end result is more work days per month, longer days per trip, with less off-duty rest between flights.

Bankruptcy at most major carriers resulted in the gutting of flight crew contracts, creating grueling work rules for diminished pay rates. So, we all fly more days per month at lower pay rates than ever before just to keep up.

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Most crewmembers who have been flying at least ten years accept this diminished reality, the longer days, lower pay and fewer days off. It’s the unfortunate evolution of the airline biz as it plays out in 2015 and sad as it is to see, we realize the “good old days” of easy non-rev travel, more days off, and longer rest breaks are a thing of the past.

Yes, you can still squeeze on for a few quick trips. But if you have an event to attend, a cruise or a resort prepaid, or several  people traveling with you, you’ll have to buy a ticket.

Many actually see an upside to full jets in terms of financial security for the airline issuing our pay checks. When customers drop off, and flight become less crowded, the trickle-down effect for airline employees is furloughs and pay cuts.

Heavy loads and the reduced ability to fly non-rev impacts crewmembers who commute the most, because if a flight is required for them to get from their home to their crew base, the small number of available unsold seats require them to spend even more time away from home.

There are two types of commuters–voluntary and involuntary. I feel sorry for the latter: they’re the very junior who have been displaced out of their home base due to manning cutbacks. For many, a family situation dictates that they must commute. This is a harsh, disheartening burden for them to bear, one that’s completely out of their control.

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The other type is the voluntary commuters. That is, though they may live within driving distance of a crew base, some voluntarily transfer to a base requiring a flight to get to work. They’re motivated by some perceived advantage, whether financial or other personal priority. Fine, and good luck: if I chose to commute to a more junior base like NYC or Miami, I could hold the 777 captain schedule of my choice. But I don’t, because I know the drawbacks, the wasted time, the reduced family time as a parent and spouse if I did.

Add about three times the stress, waiting and lost time with family that goes with the unprecedented high flight bookings that show no sign of relenting and the voluntary commute is less attractive than ever. Some still choose to do so, and more power to them.

Regardless, the “good old days” of easy nonrev travel and lots of free days off to pursue it are long gone. For the majority of the flight crew world, home and family responsibilities become the priority rather than leisure travel anyway after ten or fifteen years of flying. For the twenty-somethings new to the job and hoping to fly free, the full jets that make nonrev travel next to impossible are a measure of financial security they desperately need, because they’re the ones most vulnerable to furloughs if air travel demand drops off. Many would prefer the side effect of profitability–full seats–to the hazards of an airline downturn.

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Some crewmembers actually portray full aircraft and a nearly impossible pass travel situation as a plot against employees, but anyone who has been here more than ten years recalls two things that override such nonsense. First, we all remember the pay cuts, lost retirements and career stagnation of “the good old days” when air traffic was light And non-rev travel easy. And second, perhaps most important, we realize that the good old days of great layovers, long crew rest and days off are a thing of the past, permanently.

There are those who must commute and I feel sorry for them. There are those who choose to commute and I feel sorry for them, too. And there are those–including me–who wish pass travel was easier.

But those of us in the aircrew biz realize the reality of life today. If you’re tempted to take a flight crew job for the “free travel,” you’re going to be disappointed. And if you’re flying today but looking backwards to the good old days, complaining about the loss–get real: the good old days, like your nostalgic, time-aggrandized young aircrew days are gone for good. Like it or not, we’re moving on.

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13 Responses to “Flight Crew Reality: Travel Privileges are a Cruel Hoax”

  1. Except for a short time, from about 1977 to 1982(?), I’ve had passes on American Airlines from birth via my dad, and then my brother: 56 years. Now, as the aunt of a UA pilot, I also have them with United. Except for my brother’s retirement flight from LAX to Heathrow and back, in 2006, I have not flown non-rev in 15 years. (and I possibly only made it on those due to his situation, charm, and boxes of candy to the gate agents).

    I want to get where I’m going in a reasonable time (at least the same day I want!), at 5’10” I don’t want a middle seat in steerage, and the D3 fees rival a regular ticket price.

    My brother and his wife don’t mind waiting days to get somewhere, but they are retired; I’m not. I don’t have that time nor patience in my advancing age.

    It was great when it was a benefit (even when I got grilled at the desk about whether I was wearing pantyhose or not, and if a leather skirt was acceptable in First). But jobs for aviators is more important.

    • I just bought tickets to San Juan for 3. If you have a resort or cruise paid for, nonrev is too risky financially. If you try to hedge by going a day or more early, hotel and food costs just about add up to at least one discounted ticket, or certainly a Kayak last minute deal. And the last days of a vaycay or cruise are spoiled by the “I have to get back to fly!” angst of nonrev. We’re all getting paid more than we ever have in our respective crew professions. The longterm view is profitability, not nonrev travel, ensures the job will last.

  2. One thing you didn’t mention is the practice of flying smaller regional jets to larger cities so that they are assured of having a nearly full flights. I commute for my company and I almost exclusively travel on my companies jumpseat.The downside is that my company is a cargo carrier and most of the flights are at night. It is becoming very common to see off line jumpseaters on our cargo jumpseats.

  3. AA Retired Says:

    Next February, 2016 I will celebrate the start of my eighth year of retirement. In those eight years I have never even attempted to use a pass (non rev). When I travel by air, I use miles earned on credit card purchases, or just buy a ticket, and guess what? The over worked, underpaid agents treat me like a real person, rather than an annoyance.

    • Yep–as a nonrev, you must approach the agent hat in hand like a Dickens character: “Please sir, may I board? I’ll be no trouble.” Buying a cheap ticket is worth it. I made the choice to live at my crew base so I wouldn’t have to commute. On days off, I’m even more reluctant to voluntarily become the travel beggar nonrev makes you. I even hate to deadhead for the same reason. You can tell who likes to be seen as a crewmember nonreving–crew ID prominently displayed. Why? Quietly, discreetly is the way to go.

      • Chris, you’re cracking me up. The Dickens character analogy perfectly expresses the non rev experience, and yes, it also applies to deadhead. And, sometimes I think I miss this?!

  4. Bill Brandt Says:

    Some years ago there was a family friend who was a retired Braniff pilot. He used to fly from Dallas to Quito Ecuador and after some years developed phlebitis in a leg – from the long hours sitting, I guess.

    Then Braniff went bankrupt and he lost most or all of his pension.

    I suspect the “free flights” are about like military retirees hopping C5s or C17s – strictly space available and lowest priority. You can’t be in a hurry.

    I remember the days when an employee would book the whole family.

    At least you as a pilot could get a jump seat couldn’t you?

  5. I’ve been retired from AMR since 2005 and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve non-reved and one was a 2-day debacle trying to get home to TUL after an Alaskan cruise out of SEA. No thanks. Coupled with the hassle of the crowds and security, it’s just not a pleasurable venture. There’s a lot I’d love to see in this world but my waning years will likely preclude attempting many (now) D2R ventures. Besides there’s still a lot to see on my USA bucket list so I’d rather drive. Remember the ol’ “Marry Me, Fly Free” license plate holders that RLC had a fit over many years ago? It’s a fallacy. Either buy a ticket or drive.

  6. Jim McDonough Says:

    My Dad worked for AA for 32 years, and we did a little bit of non-rev travel when I was a kid. Of course, in those days, anything at or above a 50% load factor was good. The principal remaining benefit to it in these years is for emergency travel, in the event of serious illness or death. My wife and I were able to travel to San Diego to be with Dad as he was in his final illness. American could not have been nicer to us. It was positive space, even if it was the last row in a 757. The walk up fare would have been a couple of grand.

  7. It’s not too difficult to nonrev on international longhaul during off peak times of the year and I don’t even bother flying domestic but that’s mainly due to a lack of interest with seeing other US cities instead of full planes. That being said it’s good to keep other carriers in mind since some airlines are more notorious for over sales than others.

  8. Those hop on and fly for free days were crazy times, but whole different game now. The Dickens reference above was worth a couple of chuckles

  9. That’s too bad. Having so many responsibilities as a pilot, that’d be one benefit I’d say should be available to pilots. Is it really true that some pilots on commuter airlines make as low 19,000 dollars per year? That’s just terrible. That would drive away qualified pilots. I for one don’t like Airlines gambling with my safety for their bottom line.

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