For many young aviators making the leap (of faith?) into professional aviation, it comes as a shock that their first paycheck, indeed their first many paychecks, seem a virtual David to their bills’ Goliath. A typical regional airline job starts paying in the high teens or low twenties. That reality combined with the fact that most new pilots lack the seniority to live in more desirable cities yields an interesting phenomenon know as the crash pad. A crash pad can be a variety of things. In general it consists of anywhere from 3 to 15 or more pilots, flight attendants or other flight crews commuting from their actual homes to a common domicile. They may or may not know each other, frequently assuming that their airline’s extensive background checks will weed out anyone that may have bodies hidden under their porch, or otherwise be an undesirable roommate. This group of aviators will pool their funds and strain their patience in order to share a common address near the airport at a fraction of what it would cost to pay for a hotel (because these crews choose to commute, the airlines are not responsible for paying for their accommodations). Since most pilots or flight attendants are only sleeping in this home-away-from-home for a few nights out of the month, you will frequently see several people “living” in the same apartment, house or condo with the hopes that any given night will not attract more of the occupants than there are beds. Other crash pads limit the number of occupants to the number of beds, although futons, air mattresses and couches are frequently fair game as well. In most places you get your own bed, although not always. For less money, some crash pad owners allow “hot bunking”, which means you may show up ready for rest, only to get into bed and realize the sheets are still warm from the previous occupant!
The crash pad lifestyle is a situation that can yield truly hysterical results. For example, a Captain I recently flew with arranged his crash pad entirely over the internet. He was mailed a key by the owner, and used map quest to find the place. When he got there he didn’t need the key because the door was unlocked, despite a half dozen flight crew members racked out in bunk beds in the living room. He was nearly clubbed by a territorial flight attendant as he found his way to an empty bunk to get his required 8 hours of rest before hitting the wild blue the following morning. Oh what the traveling public doesn’t know?. Truth be told, most crash pads are fairly mundane- an average apartment or house with an extra room or two, hosting a few professional travelers who are rarely there. In fact, many crash pads either prohibit or charge extra for pilots or flight attendants that are on reserve, since those crews will be in the pad more days of the month. Every rule has it’s exceptions of course. It isn’t unheard of for a crash pad to consist of a Winnebago in the crew parking lot, with several people holding a key. (In fact, one airline I know of recently outlawed this practice due to the amount of electricity that was being drawn from exterior outlets to power multiple mobile homes in their parking lot!) I suppose in that situation, if you really wanted to avoid sharing your coveted cot space with someone else, you could just fire it up and drive away. I’ve also seen a crash pad consist of an air mattress in the crawl space of a small house- crashers even had to climb a wooden ladder to get into the nook, and had to be careful not to hit their heads on the water heater that was also housed in the space. Most crash pads are more thought out, and some are downright ingenious. This one in the Baltimore area has individual “pods”, complete with bed, television, reading lamp and privacy curtain for each occupant!
My own crash pad is pretty garden variety. Another pilot in my company bought his first house, and has three of us crashing there. It’s a great deal for everyone, since we basically pay his mortgage for him and still feel like we’re getting a bargain. In fact, many younger pilots eager to buy that first “permanent” address are only able to do so because they plan on extra income from crash padders.
A tip for those about to embark on the commuting adventure; know what you’re getting into. There are some critical questions you need to ask before committing to a crash pad, and cost is just one. For example, ask about how many people live there- are they line holders or reserve? A mix of airlines or is the pad company specific? (This could have some ramifications for your social life) Hot bunking or do I get my own bed? When is rent due? How much notice before moving out? (Remember, you’re probably not going to have a lease. It’s important to have an understanding with your land lord!) What transportation options are there to get to the airport? If you’ll bring your own car, ask about parking. If there are many people living there, a good pad owner will have a cleaning service regularly visit the residence. Lets face it, with a dozen people coming and going, there’s just no accountability for the mess! Will you have access to common household amenities like the kitchen? What entertainment options are nearby?
Although I would never discourage a potential pilot or flight attendant from pursuing the dream, I would encourage all the would-be flight crew members out there to talk to as many pilots and flight attendants as possible, and remember to get some of their best and worst crash pad stories. It could really flesh out your perspective. Most of them will agree, it’s not just a job, it’s a complete lifestyle!