By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 4, 2009; A10
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.
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."
* * *
According to the Department of Transportation, the last six fatal commercial aviation accidents in the United States involved regional air carriers. The most recent was the Feb. 12 crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 near Buffalo, which killed all 49 people onboard and one on the ground. Federal investigators have called it the deadliest U.S. transportation accident in seven years, and it offers a window into working conditions in the regional airline world.
Colgan operated Flight 3407, but Continental Airlines sold the tickets and draped the plane in company colors. The plane's co-pilot, Rebecca Shaw, lived with her husband in her parent's Seattle home, thousands of miles away from her pilot base in Newark.
On the night before the accident, Shaw flew to Newark as a passenger on a FedEx plane. Along the way, according to federal investigators, she told an inquiring FedEx pilot that she didn't have a crash pad. She also said there was a couch in the Colgan crew room at Newark "with her name on it."
The National Transportation Safety Board has yet to determine the cause of the Colgan accident. But investigators, congressional committees and other federal officials are delving into a number of problems brought to light by the crash, including excessive commuting by flight crews, industry hiring practices, corporate financial pressures and crew member fatigue.
"I think the accident should serve as a wake-up call," said Charlie Preusser, 30, a pilot who worked at Colgan in 2007 and lived in a crash pad in Albany, N.Y. "We are putting pilots in compromising situations. Airlines are being allowed to push pilots way too much."
However, Williams, the Pinnacle spokesman, said: "On average, Colgan pilots fly less than five hours a day and average 50 hours a month. It is a rare occasion to actually exceed seven hours flying and extremely rare to legally exceed eight hours."
While working for Colgan as a co-pilot, Preusser shared a crash pad with about seven other people. Most of the time, he slept on an air mattress.
At Colgan, Preusser said, he took home about $20,000 a year piloting a Beechcraft 1900D, a turboprop that flies 19 passengers, a load so small that the airline wasn't required to have a flight attendant onboard. As the first officer, or second-in-command, he seated passengers, conducted the safety briefing and checked seat belts before taking his chair in the cockpit. He generally flew up to six departures a day.
Today, half of all scheduled flights in the United States are operated by regional airlines. Pay rates are rooted in a complicated system dating to the 1920s and '30s that takes into account the size and weight of the airplane, pilot rank and even plane speed.
Airline bankruptcies since the 2001 terrorist attacks have also left a deep impact, driving down pay by 30 to 50 percent, according to the Air Line Pilots Association, the nation's largest pilot union. Senior pilots on the largest airliners earned as much as $300,000 a year. Those pilots saw their annual pay shaved to $170,000. In the regional world, $100,000-a-year captains dropped to $80,000. Those in the $40,000 range fell to $30,000. Now, first-year pilots in the industry can make as little as $20,000. Flight attendants make even less.
"It was a huge step back," said Paul Rice, first vice president of the ALPA. "Most pilots lost pension and a lot of contractual work rules that revolve around scheduling."
In the past, regional airline pilots would live "continuously hand-to-mouth" for a couple of years, building their résumés with the hope of being promoted to a better-paying captain's job, Preusser said. That captain's job, in turn, could be a launching pad to a better-paying position at a major airline. But those expectations have been disrupted by the economic downturn, which has led to steep financial losses and route and employment cutbacks.
"Unfortunately, now there is nowhere to go," Preusser said. "People aren't retiring; there is no movement. The present quality of life is substandard. And now it no longer has an expiration date."
Rice said executives at larger airlines have reacted to financial losses by handing regional airline contracts to lower and lower bidders, sacrificing pay and work standards along the way. Rice said the dynamic continues today. "Ultimately, the cost base at Colgan will be too high, and the cycle will begin again," he said.
David Castelveter, spokesman for the industry trade group Air Transport Association, said the sour financial condition of U.S. airlines has forced pay cuts for all industry employees.
"There aren't many more costs they can take out without grounding airplanes," he said.
The industry continues to lose money, he said, partly because of cheap ticket prices and fluctuating fuel costs. He estimated that major and regional airlines collectively lost $2 billion in the first quarter of this year.
Laura Brown, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said the agency has no authority to regulate pilot pay and has no plans to address directly the issue of crew commuting. However, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt recently set up a rulemaking committee to examine government standards for pilot rest and maximum work hours, which have not been revised in decades. Babbitt has asked for recommendations from the panel, made up of industry and union representatives and experts, by Sept. 1.
* * *
For now, crash pads are an important part of the system for crew members who make little money. The average rental is about $200 a month. Some pads, such as the Sterling Park house, are used by men and women but have same-sex rooms. At the low end, pads specialize in "hot-sheeting," which lets a person rent a bed for a single night.
Listings can be found on Web sites that cater to commuting pilots and flight attendants, such as Crashpads.com, which recently had 357 listings and says it has had 10,000 members since its launch in 1997. Fliers for crash pads can also be found on bulletin boards in airline crew rooms, but the best become known by word of mouth.
The experience can be akin to living in a college dormitory, except with less space and even less control over who else lives there. At Sterling Park, residents come from all parts of the country and work for at least three airlines, including Colgan, Mesa Air and United. A resident can spend as few as two days a month in the house or as many as 20.
Most wrestle with sleep issues and scrambled body clocks, the result of jumbled work schedules. A shift might start in the early morning and stretch into the night. Compounding this, residents say, is the tendency by regional airlines to switch these schedules around constantly, giving the body little ability to adjust to a sleep pattern.
The average age in the house is about 30. Some who live there have put their partying days behind them. Others have children and spouses. Many are involved in adult-level dramas usually played out via cellphone with people in other states -- which everyone else tries to tune out in order to sleep.
The wife of a captain who stays at Sterling Park said she resents the situation, particularly his sharing a house with other women while she and their children live on the other side of the country.
"Sometimes I feel as though he's off to this life we know nothing about," the woman said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of fear of career repercussions against her husband. "He kind of lives like a single person in a dorm. I don't know any of the people he talks about. I don't know any spouses or any family. There are no Christmas parties, no socializing."
She said it has been difficult for their children. "My little girl, she says, 'When is Daddy coming to visit us again?' I said, 'Daddy doesn't come and visit us. This is his home.' "