Buffeted by their industry's turbulence, airline employees save money by living part time in a motor home colony at LAX.
By Dan Weikel
July 20, 2009
For about 15 days a month, Alaska Airlines pilot Jim Lancaster lives in a motor home in Parking Lot B near the southernmost runway at Los Angeles International Airport.
Every four minutes, a jetliner or turboprop roars in -- 500 feet above his front door -- for a landing. The noise is so loud it forces Lancaster to pause during conversations. But he doesn't mind. Lancaster puts up with the smell of jet fuel and screaming engines to save time and money.
The 60-year-old aviator's primary residence is a cottage he shares with his wife overlooking a quiet bay off Puget Sound in Washington state. Living in Lot B while he's on duty means he doesn't have to rent a Los Angeles apartment with other pilots or spend 12 hours a day commuting to and from the Seattle area.
"As kids we used to ask our parents to take us to the airport to see the planes," Lancaster quipped. "Now I get to live at the airport."
He isn't the only one. Lancaster's 2001 Tradewinds sits among 100 trailers and motor homes that form a colony of pilots, mechanics and other airline workers at LAX, the third-busiest airport in the nation. They are citizens of one of the most unusual communities in the United States.
Their turf, just east of the Proud Bird restaurant off Aviation Boulevard, is less than 3,500 feet from the south runway. It is a drab expanse of crumbling gray asphalt, approach lights, chain-link fencing and rows of beige and white RVs -- some battered, others grand. A splash of color comes from the red and white blooms of about a dozen rose bushes along the colony's northern edge.
Many of the residents are separated from spouses, children and significant others for days -- even weeks -- at a time in order to keep their jobs or move up the pyramid of the airline industry.
"This is the cost of being a pilot today," said Todd Swenson, 40, a first officer with Alaska Airlines. His wife, Amanda, and 2-year-old son, Noah, live in Fresno, a six-hour commute by car. "I've wanted to be a pilot all my life. It can be awful here. But I have to provide for my family, and I love flying airplanes."
Swenson, who earns about $70,000 a year, lives across from Lancaster in a 1973 Coachman trailer that belonged to his father. If Lancaster's 38-foot rig with leather furniture is Park Place, Swenson's is Mediterranean Avenue. The 23-foot metal box is as cramped as economy class, with just enough space for a double bed, a television and a La-Z-Boy recliner. There is a galley kitchen and a bathroom about the size of an airliner lavatory.
The trailer's windows are blacked out with foil and brown paper bags so Swenson can sleep during the day. To muffle the constant din of aircraft, he bought a white-noise machine -- a small tape player with a recording that sounds like a washing machine. Swenson works out at a nearby 24-Hour Fitness, where he showers to conserve his trailer's limited water supply.
Inside the Coachman, the wood paneling and storage cabinets are covered with photos of Amanda and Noah, whom Swenson returns to about 11 days a month. He keeps in touch via a computer webcam.
"When my tires leave the driveway of my house in Fresno," Swenson said, "the only thing I can think about is getting back to my family."
For several years, clusters of RVs were scattered around the airport's parking lots until LAX officials decided to consolidate them in Lot B. Now operating as an organized camp overseen by the airport, it has an unofficial mayor, a code of conduct and residency requirements, including background checks, regular vehicle inspections and proof of employment at an air carrier.
"There might be a few other places like this nationally, but I think this is rather unique," said Michael Biagi, who heads the land-use division at Los Angeles World Airports.
Today, the colony has more than 100 residents -- mostly men -- from around the country, including captains, first officers, mechanics, flight attendants, support staff and employees of air cargo companies. There are at least two married couples, who work as flight attendants. About 10 people are on a waiting list.
Lot B's attractiveness is partly the result of the decade-long decline in air travel brought about by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the outbreak of SARS -- severe acute respiratory syndrome -- in 2003 and the deepest recession since World War II.
Salaries for pilots, mechanics and other airline workers have plummeted. Captains like Lancaster have been demoted to first officer, losing hard-earned seniority and forcing them out of plum assignments at airports close to home. Lancaster, who came to LAX from Seattle about 18 months ago, estimates that his reduction in rank cost him about $30,000 a year, roughly 20% of his pay.
Rather than quit their jobs or uproot their families for what could be a temporary stint in Los Angeles, workers have settled in Lot B, where the rent is only $60 a month.
"They'd probably be out of a job otherwise," said Doug Rogers, a 62-year-old United Airlines mechanic from Utah, who is the colony's acting mayor. "You can't maintain a household elsewhere and afford a home here in this economic climate. The airline industry is fragile right now. You just don't know what is going to happen."
Rogers has lived at LAX for about seven years in a 26-foot camper built on a Ford truck chassis. He and his wife own a house in Stansbury Park, a semi-rural community of 2,500 just north of Salt Lake City.
Rogers' living situation is the product of years of financial difficulties at United, which has gone in and out of bankruptcy proceedings. He lost his assignment at Salt Lake City International Airport, where United closed its maintenance facility a few months after the Sept. 11 attacks.
A $5 pay cut to $30 an hour, along with the airline's still tenuous future, led to his decision to keep his Stansbury Park house and rent a spot in Lot B, he said. He now works four 10-hour days a week and gets at least three days off to go back to Utah.
There's another advantage to not commuting -- whether by plane or car -- when on duty: Pilots and mechanics can get more rest, mitigating a problem that has plagued airline workers for decades.
An ongoing federal investigation indicates that fatigue could have been a factor in the crash of a Colgan Air turboprop that killed 50 people in Buffalo, N.Y., on Feb. 12. The pilot was commuting from Tampa, Fla., to Colgan's base in New Jersey. The copilot had regularly traveled from Seattle.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, 93 of Colgan's 137 New Jersey-based pilots considered themselves commuters, including 49 who traveled more than 400 miles and 29 who lived more than 1,000 miles away.
If not for Lot B or other temporary quarters, the residents would be commuting from Anchorage, Seattle, Indianapolis, Memphis, Minneapolis and Hawaii. Others live in California, but hundreds of miles from LAX.
Rogers said life in the colony has been uneventful except for a period in 2005 when scores of non-airline workers moved in from a camping area at nearby Dockweiler State Beach, which was undergoing renovation. At the time, the airport did not screen potential residents.
The new arrivals brought in lawn gnomes, garden furniture and barbecues, which created a party atmosphere and the potential for public disturbances on airport property. A few dumped garbage and human waste on the pavement. Two prostitutes moved in as well, including one in her late 60s with a taste for tight skirts and silver high heels, residents say.
Responding to complaints from parking lot tenants and patrons, airport police swept into the eastern area of Lot B, where the RVs are located. They removed the prostitutes and towed about a dozen motor homes and campers with expired registrations. Officials stopped short of closing the site by establishing strict qualifications for residency and prohibiting lawn furniture, outdoor barbecues and parties.
"We try to keep a real low profile," said Steve Young, 52, a United Airlines mechanic whose family lives in Twentynine Palms.
"We consider living here a privilege."
Since the expulsion of the outsiders, Lot B has been quiet. Most people pass their free time reading, watching movies, shopping for supplies or servicing their RVs. Occasionally, there are bike rides to Dockweiler, about four miles away, or visits to the El Segundo Air Force base hosted by Lancaster, a retired lieutenant colonel.
Because tenants' work schedules vary widely, social gatherings are small and infrequent. It is typical for a few people to organize an impromptu happy hour in one of the larger rigs, such as Lancaster's coach, which is known as the Chateau. It has satellite TV, plush carpeting and walnut-stained cabinetry.
Lancaster's wife, a teacher in Seattle, likes the Chateau as well and occasionally flies down on Friday nights to explore Los Angeles over the weekend. "It's great fun and adventurous," Marlene Lancaster said.
But other tenants, like Rogers, can't wait for their days off to escape their cramped RVs, the din of aircraft and the tedium of Lot B.
"When I go home," Rogers said, "people sometimes ask me if I'd like to go camping. I tell them no. I already do that."
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