Commuting Pilots

Nowadays it is common for pilots to accept a position in a base where they are not actually domiciled. Primarily, this is done so that a pilot can live in a preferred location to satisfy personal, family, financial or any other commitment that requires them to be in a particular place. This is only made viable by a pilot’s access to subsidised air travel from their employer, allowing them the opportunity to live in a preferred area whilst operating out of another base. Subsequently, a pilot commuting by air for work is becoming problematic for the aviation industry with many issues associated with this practice. Therefore it is important that pilots are aware of the numerous stressor associated with commuting which may potentially impact on their work performance and safety. Undoubtedly, excess commuting will have negative effects on relationships, health, finances and lost time spent on travel. Certainly, the amount of commuting flights a pilot makes is dependent on the fleet they are assigned to. For example a long haul pilot with longer tours of duty would commute less frequently than a regional pilot who could commute most days to and from their base. Importantly, commuting is conducted by a pilot in their own time and does not factor into flight and duty time as positioning does when facilitated by the airline.

Certainly, it could be said that there is little difference between a pilot who drives or flies to their duty. However, when a pilot drives between home and work they are aware of their approximate journey time, and have a flexibility and overall control of their situation. When geographical distance prohibits this option making flying necessary other factors add stressors to the commuting process compared with driving a car to work. A commuting pilot may experience frustration and irritation through delays further escalating pressure to get to work or conversely return home. Indeed they may need to position themselves earlier for a duty, further increasing their travelling time. Additionally, environmental stressors associated with commuting such as passengers, crowds and noise all have the ability to cause a pilot negative emotional and physical reaction further degrading their performance. Especially as travel is usually standby with seat allocation confirmed at the last minute. Some of the issues frequently considered by commuting pilots:-

• Are there seats on the passengering flight?
• Is the flight on time?
• Is the weather at the departure or arrival airport an issue?
• Is the flight likely to be cancelled?

Undeniably, these are stressors to a pilot who is generally time orientated with on time performance goals an important consideration for every aspect of an airlines operation. Therefore a person who has a strong perception of time will subsequently experience increased levels of stress when commuting due to an over awareness of deadlines and pressure (Cantwell, 2009). Undoubtedly, commuting by air will lengthen a pilot’s working day including added stress and fatigue at considerably higher levels compared with driving to work.

Essentially, fatigue is a progressive decline in alertness and cognitive performance and can certainly be exacerbated by long commute times (Holmes & Stewart, 2008). Undoubtedly, pilot commuting is challenging with potential for a pilot to suffer fatigue as more time is spent travelling between home and work. This is a real concern for an airline as fatigue will negatively impact on safety with a pilot’s operational performance reduced and error rate increased. Fatigue attributed to commuting was certainly a contributing factor in the 2009 Continental Connection flight 3407 operated by Colgan Air. The turboprop crashed five miles from their New York destination after losing control on approach killing all forty nine onboard and one person on the ground (National Transportation Safety Board, 2010). A safety issue raised in the accident investigation was that both pilots were commuters to their base of Newark from their homes in Florida and Seattle. Importantly, both crew members spent the preceding hours prior to sign on sleeping in the crew room to save money on overnight accommodation. Certainly, the airline was aware of this practice amongst pilots and had made reference to protocols surrounding commuting in their company manuals. Whilst not condoning commuting their written acknowledgement seemed to endorse this fatiguing and potentially unsafe practice.

Commuting pilots make it especially difficult and creates a dilemma for rostering and crewing departments within an airline. A duty that is well within a pilots flight and duty time limitation for their official base may actually incur 2-3 hours on either side of that duty for the pilot when passengering between home and work. This is problematic for the airline as insider knowledge means a hesitation in assigning a perfectly reasonable duty that will invariably mean an incredibly long day for the pilot. Therefore if these departments are aware of a pilot’s actual home location should they factor this in when assigning duties? Certainly, conventions are currently loose surrounding this issue but perhaps some consideration should be made by airlines in rostering, providing adequate rest facilities and more comprehensive policies on commuting. Although logistically for pilot rostering and crewing practices this would be unworkable and difficult to manage. Increasingly, airlines now stipulate in contracts that a pilot must be permanently domiciled in their assigned base in an effort to address this growing issue and ultimately protect the pilot’s welfare.

Pilots need to be fit, healthy and alert as shift workers operating in a safety sensitive occupation, therefore it is concerning when research shows that long commutes adversely affects a person’s level of well being. Unsurprisingly, the pressure of commuting can have adverse medical affects with increased blood pressure, musculoskeletal disorders, heightened anxiety and hostility levels with reduced tolerance and impaired cognitive performance (Koslowsky, Kluger, & Reich, 1995). Additionally, a contributing factor to the pressures for a commuting pilot is in effectively managing not only their work but personal life ensuring a healthy balance. This is further hampered by the necessity for a commuter pilot to have a temporary residence when impossible to manage commuting time and distance with work commitments. This commuting induced separation of home and work will invariably affect daily life and personal relationships. Occasionally, this can result in a pilot’s productivity becoming negatively influenced with episodes of lateness, absenteeism and an overall feeling of low job satisfaction. However, it is the pilot’s choice to commute for work by air and they have a responsibility to effectively manage the consequences.

Ultimately, commuting pilots have to willingly accept the tangible and intangible costs associated with passengering such as wasted time spent travelling, reduced leisure time with family and friends and money spent on flights and accommodation. Not forgetting the potential to detrimentally impact on their health and work performance as a result of fatigue and other medical complaints. However, the pilot must still ensure they are sufficiently rested and fit for work arriving in time to prepare for a duty regardless of their mode of transportation. Whilst it is important to note that although commuting can be stressful there are many pilots who adequately manage the process and are resilient to its many challenges.

1. Cantwell, M. (2009). Examining the factors that impact public transport commuting satisfaction. Journal of Public Transportation, 12 (2), 1-21.
2. Holmes, A., & Stewart, S. (2008). Limitations on hours of work and fatigue risk management. Society of Petroleum Engineers.
2. Koslowsky, M., Kluger, A. N., & Reich, M. (1995). Commuting stress: Causes, effects, and methods of coping. New York: Plenum Press.
2. National Transportation Safety Board. (2010). Aircraft Accident Report: Loss of Control on approach, Colgan Air, Inc.

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Authors / Editors

Louise ODonnellLouise ODonnell

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