Wall Street History
The Pilot's Dilemma
I subscribe to at least 20 political and financial publications and
one of the very best is Crain’s New York Business. So the other
day I was reading a piece on airline pilots and where they are
forced to live these days, due to the affordability issue, and I
thought it was such a great synopsis of the current environment,
in many different respects, that I sought the permission of
Crain’s to reprint it in full. So special thanks to reporter Hilary
Potkewitz and editor Greg David for granting this wish. And to
those of you who live in the New York area in particular,
subscribe to the publication. It’s both highly entertaining and
Airline pilots detour around NY by Hilary Potkewitz
When a flight lands at one of New York’s airports, the pilot
usually says over the loudspeaker, “On behalf of your New
York-based flight crew, we’d like to thank you for flying with
us.” But don’t assume he lives here. More likely, the crew
commutes from homes in the Midwest, the South or upstate cities
Deterred by the high cost of living and salaries relatively the
same as a decade ago, many pilots assigned to New York or New
Jersey refuse to relocate.
Senior pilots usually have a say in their placements, so it’s often
junior pilots who draw the city’s airports. Less able to afford
New York area real estate – their pay ranges from $37,000 to
$70,000 – junior pilots feel they have little choice but to
commute from cheaper parts of the country.
Pilots endure stress-filled journeys to get to work, and when they
hit the same delays that bedevil other travelers, their late arrivals
can further disrupt airline schedules.
“You can end up spending two of your three days off flying, just
to make it to work then home again,” says Capt. Craig Hoskins, a
pilot with JetBlue Airways. He’s been based at John F. Kennedy
International Airport for more than four years but lives in
Bradenton, Fla. “The delays put additional stress on getting to
Two decades ago, pilots could afford to live in New York, or at
least nearby. When Capt. Jack Norman took a job with People
Express Airlines in the 1980s, he moved his family to New
Jersey from California. He rented a townhouse near Sparta,
about 40 miles from Newark Liberty International Airport. The
town became so popular with airline personnel, they called it the
But real estate prices kept rising, so when Mr. Norman wanted to
buy, he wound up in Bethlehem, Pa., a 90-minute drive to
Newark. The 59-year-old pilot can now count at least 30 pilots
living within a 30-mile radius. “As suburban New Jersey
became pretty expensive, this became the next big place for
people to look for nice, middle-class family housing,” says Mr.
Norman, now a captain with Continental Airlines.
Out of range?
Only Detroit is a less desirable posting than New York, says a
spokesman for the largest pilot’s union, the Air Line Pilots
Association. Of Continental’s 2,200 Newark-based pilots, only
about a third live locally – many in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh
Valley, 75 miles from Newark. Only 20% of JetBlue’s 1,300
pilots live in the New York area, even though the Queens-based
company is concentrated at JFK. American Airlines has 1,090
pilots based here, but just 50% live in the area. The few pilots
who want to be stationed here tend to be natives.
“Everything’s done by seniority,” says Kit Darby, president and
publisher of AIR Inc., an Atlanta-based pilot career information
service. “What you fly, when you fly and where you’re based.”
All this traveling, whether by plane from the Midwest or by car
from Pennsylvania, adds to the potential for complications. A
rain delay or a mechanical hiccup can send a cascade of woe
through the schedule.
“Whether it’s coming to work or transferring between trips, we
are subject to the same constraints and limitations as the general
public,” notes Capt. Gerry Dupree, Northeastern vice president
of the Organization of Black Airline Pilots. “It may be a little
easier for us to get on a plane, but if flights aren’t moving, we’re
Fewer extra seats
Airline personnel have long had more flexibility because they
have access to jump seats – the extra seat up front where an off-
duty pilot can hitch a ride – even on competitors’ flights. But
with packed flights and more pilots commuting, there are fewer
jump seats available. “It adds so much uncertainty; you just
never know what flight you’ll be able to get on,” says Mr.
But airlines and pilots insist that delays are rarely due to
commuting snafus. Pilots are required to leave room for at least
three flights to deliver them in time for their shift, and failure to
report on time can be cause for termination, especially in the first
Pilots and consumer groups say delays are instead largely due to
flight overscheduling. If a pilot’s first flight misses a connection,
most airlines have a few reserve pilots on call. But when delays
are lighting up the screens, a handful of reserves aren’t enough to
get things back on track.
“Airlines are overscheduling pilots, and there aren’t enough of
them,” says Kate Hanni, founder of the Coalition for an Airline
Passenger Bill of Rights. She blames pay cuts and a history of
furloughs for driving pilots to cheaper cities. “Not having a crew
available for all these scheduled flights is certainly one of the
problems, especially in New York,” she adds.
Capt. Demico Black knows the scenario well. One of the few
native New Jersey pilots, the 25-year-old works for a regional
airline and often has trouble getting home to Newark.
“We know that if there’s even one cloud in the sky [in the
Northeast], you’re going to be delayed,” says Mr. Black from a
waiting area at Charlotte Douglas International airport.
He is scheduled to fly to Newark and within an hour be in the
cockpit on a flight to Pittsburgh. His Newark-bound flight is
“That Pittsburgh trip is probably not going to happen [for me]
today,” says Mr. Black.
I have to admit, folks. I never thought about some of these issues
before. Special thanks again to Crain’s for allowing me to bring
this to you.
Wall Street History returns Nov. 30.