It’s a similar scene, I show up at the airport, push my way through the crowd to check in and list for a commuting flight to get to work, and take a seat on the terribly under padded airport benches to wait for boarding. Not too soon after, the person I’m sitting next to turns and asks the familiar yet dreaded question: “So, where do you live?”. Lately, I have found this question increasingly difficult to answer because the truth is I, like many other fresh airline pilots, do not really spend a lot of time in any one location… we are by definition, nomadic.
This is the reality faced by most fledgling jet jockeys who are beginning their career in the airlines. Low seniority and a base in an expensive city like New York or Chicago typically forces most pilots to commute to work from other cities on their days off. This means little time at any one place, and a lot of time on the road (or air, however you look at it).
So how do they survive their nomadic lifestyle?
Adaptation to extreme climates?
The use of bows and arrows to hunt and forage?
Extensive knowledge of edible plants in the forest?
It all comes down to precise, almost obsessive packing techniques.
I decided to share some of the tricks and essentials I learned while adapting to my new schedule. I decided to focus on the equipment I carry and how I pack. This info should help those making the transition into the airline world as well as frequent travelers who are looking to learn the secrets of airline pilot packing. Enjoy!
Suitcase survival 101
Lesson 1: Your luggage is your new home, buy the best they make
The only thing I can think of that I use more than my suitcase is my phone. Therefore, this is the last area you want to skimp. If a wheel breaks, you are going to look like an idiot helplessly dragging your 50 pounds of stuff through the terminal. Likewise, when a ramper throws your bag and it catches the latch on the cargo door, ripping it wide opened and spilling your undies throughout the cargo hold of a 737, you’re going to wish you spent the extra money. Your luggage needs to be exceptionally durable, probably more durable than you think because of the abuse it will take while commuting.
The only company I have seen that makes bags of acceptable strength is Luggage Works. They have a couple models of bags, but to simplify things, they basically make two models – a steel framed bag and a plastic framed bag.
Most pilots use the steel framed bag and stand by its superiority to the plastic framed bag. I put a lot of thought into my decision about which one to buy (probably too much thought) and concluded that the plastic framed bag is a better choice however, and here’s why:
- Better absorption of damage – From examining the bags of my veteran colleagues, I have found that most of the damage done to the bags comes from it either being dropped 15 feet off of a cargo loading ramp onto pavement, or it being smashed by the cargo door. When the metal framed bag is dropped, the steel frame takes the shock and dents like a soda can. The plastic frame takes the load, deforms, and then reforms to its original shape.
- Less weight – The plastic framed bag weighs 11.05 pounds versus 15.95 pounds for the metal framed bag. Not only does this mean that you will have to pull around five pounds less, but it also means that it will have less impact force when it is dropped.
- The frame isn’t the failure point anyway – Most people do not replace their bag because the frame breaks, but rather because the fabric wears out. Both bags use identical fabric.
- Its $100 cheaper – Not to conflict with the whole “buy the best bag regardless of price” spiel of course, but its a bonus.
Lesson 2: Dollars and quarters
Quarters are one of the most important things I carry. I never realized how dramatically a bag of quarters could change the quality of life my life until I started in the airlines. Quarters allow you to, among other things:
- Wash clothes at a hotel
- Buy a soda or water
- Ride most forms of public transportation anywhere in the US
- Buy a midnight snack from a snack machine (or breakfast, lunch, or dinner)
I usually carry a bag with five dollars of quarters in it and make sure to constantly replenish my supply.
Cash is also important, I usually bring $25 in singles and try not to carry more in the event my wallet is stolen or lost. I carry only singles because singles can be used for nearly anything, where larger bills can only be used for expensive stuff. For example, both a twenty and a single can be used to buy a $10 pizza, but you’re not going to give a hotel shuttle driver a twenty for a tip. I put most purchases on my credit card, but it is a good idea to use cash for certain items.
Lesson 3: Become a sleep ninja
I used to look at a chair and a stool as just that, a chair and a stool. Now, that I have broadened my horizons, I not only see two independent pieces of furniture, but rather fully functional portable bed! You will eventually learn how to make beds out of nearly anything to catch some sleep between work or if you miss a go home flight. There are three things I bring to make sure I can always make a furniture bed if I have to:
- A normal sized fleece blanket – Nothing makes a furniture bed more comfortable than a fleece blanket. Fleece is light weight, warm, and easy to wash. I roll up my blanket and use straps to compress it and fit it at the bottom of my bag. The blanket takes up a lot of room, but is priceless when its needed.
- An eye mask – Sometimes I have to sleep in a lighted area. A good eye mask is essential to to make this happen. When eye mask shopping, make sure that the mask covers your eyes entirely and don’t worry about the price tag, buy the best one you can find.
- Camping pillow – Avoid those C shaped airplane pillows. They take up a lot of space and are terrible for normal sleeping. Go for the camping pillows that stuff into a small bag about the size of your fist.
Lesson 4: Ditch your cheap uniforms
If you can, get rid of your all cotton uniform shirts. No matter how hard I have tried, I have never been able to fold an all cotton pilot shirt in such a way where it will come out of my bag unwrinkled. This means that I always need access to an iron… which is a luxury which I do not always have. On top of that, I refuse to wake up 10 minutes earlier to iron a shirt. Luckily, I found amazing wrinkle free synthetic pilot shirts that always come out of my overnight pilot bag ready for action. They are made by a company called A Cut Above Uniforms. Heres the Link:
The “Tropo” material is the stretchy non-wrinkle material.
Lesson 5: A place for everything and everything in its place
Pilot luggage has more pockets than your average suitcase. Use this to your advantage! Mentally assign each individual item you are bringing a pocket and stick with it. This will mitigate the likelihood of forgetting something and also assures that you know where to find something if you need it fast.
Lesson 6: NEVER LET ANYTHING GO INTO A CARGO HOLD OF AN AIRCRAFT THAT’S VALUABLE TO YOU!
This is extremely important! Never check anything that you cannot replace or has significant value. Your overnight bag is not going to fit in the overhead compartment of 40% of the airplanes you are going to fly on. Also, is it generally customary that you make sure that all of the passengers get their bags in the overhead before you steal a space. This means that your bag will ride in the belly quite often. I keep all valuables in my kit bag, and pack my overnight bag with the assumption that I will never see it again. Never put logbooks, passports, computers, or anything you need to do your job in your overnight bag.
Lesson 7: Roll your normal clothes and fold your uniforms
I have found that rolling clothes like jeans and t-shirts will make them take up less space in my bag. Rolling uniforms can turn even a wrinkle free uniform into a wrinkled mess however, and thus, uniforms need to be folded. To Take it to the next level, you can place a rolled up T-shirt under the creases of the folds of your shirts and pants. The increased radius will prevent a fold from forming a wrinkle.
Lesson 8: Headphones
Headphones that cover your entire ear are essential for one important reason. It may seem harsh but headphones, especially full ear headphones, force people to stop talking to you. Normally, most pilots enjoy talking to passengers when they ask about their job on a commute. Eventually however, you will run into someone who needs to tone down their enthusiasm a tad. This seems to always occur on your go home flight after a four day trip with minimum rest. When this occurs, you can simply slip your headphones on and pretend to sleep.
Lesson 9: Leave an extra cell phone charger in your bag as a backup
Always take an extra cell phone charger with you and never take it out of your bag unless you lose or forget your main one. If you forget your cell charger and your phone dies, your life will become a living hell. You will lose your ability to take calls on the go from scheduling if you are on reserve, so you will have to spend all day sitting by the phone in the crew room or hotel. You can’t check your schedule without going to the airport, and you can’t order a pizza. Things will fall apart quickly. Unless of course your borrow one from a buddy or buy a new charger at the airport.
Lesson 10: Never put your luggage on the ground
Nasty varmints like bedbugs seem to have an easier time getting into all of your clothes and running your entire week if you put your bag on the ground. Always use the luggage rack at the hotel and never put dirty clothes on the hotel room floor. Bag all used clothes and put them back into your luggage.
Lesson 11: Toiletries
I have found that travel sized toiletries are completely worthless for the durations I spend away from home. Pack full sized tubes of toothpaste and full sized deodorant bars. Full sized bottles of shampoo and body wash are too large however so they must be brought in smaller containers. The only containers I have found that are durable enough to use every day are “Gotoobs” by human gear. Heres the link:
And yes, I have spent nearly $30 on soap containers.
Keep all toiletries together in a hangable bag that contains them all, and make sure that bag is leakproof. This allows you to take everything you need out of your bag easily instead of digging around to find everything.
Lesson 12: Before takeoff checklist
Before you leave anyplace where your bag was opened, check to make sure you have all of your important items. It seems obvious, but it is critical to nomadic survival. First check to see that you have everything you need for work. Then check to see you have all of your expensive stuff, and that you have those items that you would hate to not have on your trip. Check things in the same order every time and make it a habit. Avoid random checking to make sure you have everything, and instead make a mental checklist for each time you leave. Mine looks like this:
1. Required for work:
- ID, Passport, Pilots License, Medical (all in same pocket in kitbag)
- EFB, EFB Mount, Manuals, Checklists, backup battery (next pocket in kit bag)
2. Expensive Stuff:
- Computer, Camera, Headphones (last pocket in kitbag)
3. Hate to forget:
- Eye mask, Phone charger (top pocket of overnight bag)
- Phone (right hand on right shirt pocket)
- Wallet (left hand on left pant pocket)
It seems ridiculous at first, but eventually it will become a flow. I have never forgotten anything because of this. I will warn you however that if you do this in public, people might look at you like you’re crazy.
Lesson 13: Carry food and water
Like the nomadic people of Mongolia, it is essential that you carry emergency supplies to use when food is scarce. I keep a stainless steel thermos filled with water at all times. I also make sure to carry plenty of granola bars, microwave popcorn, and other dry foodstuffs. This gives me something to eat if I can’t get food because all of the restaurants are closed around the hotel, or there simply isn’t any food available within walking distance.