MEMBERS ONLY: Inside the Airline Industry: Low Wages, Big Perks and Burgers in Boston

MEMBERS ONLY: "If I fly domestically upgrading to first class is only $10 USD, and overseas it’s $100 USD for each leg. So to fly from the US to Amsterdam first class, roundtrip would cost a grand total of $256 USD. Of course seats have to be open in first class for this to happen, and I have to dressed for it: collared shirt and pants with no holes in them." - Frederic Poag on working in the airline industry

I received a text from my girlfriend, Susan, around 8 o’clock on my Friday, the last work day of the week which is Monday.  “Hey I wanna see the poppies in London.  The flights are wide open.  We should go tomorrow.” By the poppies she was referring to the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red exhibit at the Tower of London.  It marked the centenary anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War.  She’d seen it on the evening news, and wanted to go.  “This is a once in a lifetime kind of thing! They’re taking it down tomorrow.  We need to go!”

In a little under an hour we’d hammered out the logistics, and during my break I booked a ticket for London.  The trip was gonna be a short one, just a day and couple of nights across the pond so hotel, food, and even packing would trivial details that could be worked out later.

The next morning I flew to Tri-Cities Regional Airport (TRI), Tennessee from Washington National (DCA) to meet up with Susan, did some laundry, and then got back on a plane that evening to fly out to Heathrow through Charlotte, North Carolina (CLT). I really didn’t want to go, and had backed out at the last minute.  I was exhausted from the work week, and had a cold that was turning into a serious sinus infection.  However her excitement, my desire not to let her down, and see a once in a lifetime exhibit overruled any minor health concerns and general hesitation on my part on the minute after the last minute.

I slept on the way over, after watching Guardians of the Galaxy, with a row of four seats to myself.  The plane was so clean it looked like the plastic had just been taken off of it.  With 175 open seats the rear portion where we were seated had so many open seats everyone pretty much had a row to themselves. In London Susan and I enjoyed a couple of days of great weather, sunshine and cool temperatures in the mid 50’s F.  Everything managed to line up perfectly for our visit.

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Artist Paul Cummins Memorial Poppy Display at the Tower of London

Working for the airlines has the greatest of all job benefits: the ability to fly commercially for free.  Well it’s not exactly free.  There’s some conditions, low pay being one of them, but basically if there’s space available on a flight, for my carrier, I can fly domestically for free.  Internationally all I have to pay is the entry taxes.  For other carriers I can purchase a ZED fare, a smallish fee compared to regular ticket prices, to fly stand-by.  This perk, non-reving, is why people stay in the airline industry.  It’s the thing that gets you through all the bullshit if you like to travel.

To say I was excited about going to London would be an overstatement.  In fact flying to London, though on my bucket list, wasn’t a top priority.  Reason being is London has the highest entry taxes in Europe.  It costs around $200 USD to travel to London as opposed to $56 USD to travel to Amsterdam.  I save $144 USD just by changing the destination, and that pretty much covers a two day jaunt with lodging, tram pass, and meals*.  Thus if I go to Amsterdam the entire trip is covered as opposed to London it just lets me exit the aircraft.

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The River Thames and the Tower Bridge

Non-reving has changed how and where I travel.  It creates a flexibility that those outside of the industry see as unfathomable.  “In the airline industry we treat planes like cars,” my friend Joseph once said.  Thanks to smartphones I can walk into the international terminal at one of my carrier’s hubs, look to see which flights have open seats, and as long as that country doesn’t require an onerous entry visa application all I need is my passport.  I simply book a seat, and get on.  No outrageous fees, and no boarding denial due to getting a ticket at the last minute.

While I can plan out a vacation the way most people do it’s a bit of a hindrance.  If I want to go to Hawaii at the height of vacation season, while possible, I’m at a disadvantage since I don’t have a guaranteed seat.  And if I book a hotel in advance every day I get stuck somewhere means I’m paying for a room that’s not being used.  I hate to check luggage because if I get bumped, or have to switch planes to bounce around that means my bag goes without me.  If I decide to go to Seattle instead of Portland my bag doesn’t move with me, and because I’m a non-rev employee I have to go back to the airport to pick it up.  So I travel light, and carry everything I need with me.

There’s also side benefits that stem from this ultimate perk.  While it’s not a sure thing gate agents, the employees who work in the boarding area, are usually a little nicer to a fellow employee.  They understand what it’s like to non-rev because they do it too.  So if there’s an open row of seats that’s where I’ll be.  It’s usually an exit row because most passengers don’t want to pay for the seat upgrade.  This isn’t always the case.  Sometimes I’m stuck in the shittiest seat on the plane, the one next to the lavatory, but such is the way of free things.

Plus there’s the first class upgrade.  If I fly domestically upgrading to first class is only $10 USD, and overseas it’s $100 USD for each leg.  So to fly from the US to Amsterdam first class, roundtrip would cost a grand total of $256 USD.  Of course seats have to be open in first class for this to happen, and I have to dressed for it: collared shirt and pants with no holes in them.

Non-reving has also changed the way I live.  For four days I’m in Crystal City, Virginia for work, and then I commute back to East Tennessee for the rest of the week.  I usually get a raised eyebrow when I tell people I work in Washington DC (It’s easier to say I work in DC instead of Washington National which is in Arlington), and I live in Kingsport, Tennessee. But to pilots, flight attendants, and ground operations employees who’ve been uprooted by the merger fest that’s been going on in the industry for the past few years this is all standard fare.  There’s the crashpad in the city one is based out of, and then there’s the town one actually lives in.

Of course all of this is contingent on seats being available.  If none are I don’t fly.  I rarely get stuck anywhere since I know how to bounce around, but it can, and has, happened.  Going from Charlotte to Washington DC directly might not be an option, but Charlotte to New York (Laguardia) to DC can work.  Or maybe Charlotte to Charleston, South Carolina to DC will work better.  It all depends on how many seats are open.  You have to be flexible, and above all relax.

Thanks to non-reving I’ve been able to travel to London at a moment’s notice to see a once in a century exhibit, never mind the city itself.  I’ve traveled to Boston with co-workers to check out Harpoon brewery (Seriously get a pretzel there.  Best on Earth.), grab a burger, and fly back to Tennessee all in the same day.  I was able to fly out to Kailua-Kona, Hawaii to attend a wedding last year.  I flew first class overseas for the first time on my first trip to Amsterdam.  I wouldn’t have been able to do most of this without my flight benefits.

Of course there’s a price to be paid.  After all it’s a job perk, and you have to be able to do the job to get it in the first place.

* Marijuana and Legalized Prostitution not included.