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Far From Home, Regional Airline Flight Crews Rely on Crowded Crash Pads

The nation's pilots, strapped-for-cash in a bargain-driven industry, often find themselves bunking with 20 or more co-workers in crash houses - dorm-like alternatives to expensive hotel rooms. They're a solution to underfunding in the airline industry which, some say, could be jeopardizing flight safety.

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By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 4, 2009

At first sight, the Sterling Park house looks like an ordinary split-level, complete with carport, backyard grill and freshly mowed grass. But instead of housing a growing suburban family, it offers accommodations for 30 pilots and flight attendants struggling to string together a few precious hours of sleep.

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This is a typical crash pad for regional airline flight crews -- part of a subculture of boardinghouses jokingly referred to by those who use them as the world's largest illegal housing network. It's a makeshift arrangement for people who often have to travel cross-country from the cities where they live to the airports where their jobs are based. A few describe themselves as "somewhat homeless" and complain that they make so little money that they have to make crash pads their primary homes.

Regional airline pilots, whose employers pay much less than major airlines, say crash pads are emblematic of the dysfunction in the nation's air transportation system. They exist to fill a need for a cheap place to rest.

The house in Sterling Park illustrates their point. The interior is nondescript. The faded carpets, brownish wallpaper and secondhand furniture give rooms the feel of a low-budget motel.

Three upstairs bedrooms each hold two sets of bunk beds. Another upstairs room has two additional beds. The basement holds 16. There is little personality in the spaces, which evoke the austerity of military barracks. Storage bins double as nightstands, and some people drape the bunks with sheets to carve out a little private space.

The primary rules: Keep the place dark, and be respectful. With that in mind, people go to extremes: They might take a lamp into a closet to put on a uniform or use light from a cellphone to get dressed.

The aviation subcommittee headed by Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) has scheduled a hearing for Thursday to look at financial relationships between major airlines and regional carriers and the effect on safety. The witness list includes Philip Trenary, president and chief executive of Pinnacle Airlines, and Don Gunther, vice president for safety at Continental.

Owners of crash pads estimate that between 500 and 1,000 such houses exist in the United States. They can be found in Pittsburgh, Newark, Houston, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Chicago -- any place a major airline has hub operations fed by regional carriers.

Joe Williams, a spokesman for Pinnacle Airlines, parent company of Manassas-based regional carrier Colgan Air, said Pinnacle supports "the right of our pilots to live where they choose. . . . Some pilots choose crash pads, and some choose to move to the area where they are based."

But some industry analysts and labor officials say it isn't a choice; the need for crash pads is rooted in the financial woes of major airlines and traveling America's thirst for cheap tickets.

"The sad truth of this industry is that [air travel] has been and remains one of the great bargains for the consumer," said Bill Swelbar, a researcher at the International Center for Air Transportation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "When adjusted for inflation over the last 30 years, fares are down some 50-plus percent. And that just does not make for a sustainable business model. It doesn't make a model that allows them to compensate their people well, like they have in the past."

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