The Commuter’s Survival Kit

October 27, 2016

The Commuter’s Survival Kit


George Nolly

When I was first hired by United Airlines, in 1978, a seasoned Captain took me under his wing and acted as my mentor. “One of these days,” he said, “you’ll be furloughed, and one of these days you’ll be a commuter.” The guy was prescient! I was furloughed four years later, and some twenty years later, long after being recalled, I became a commuter.

So I’m going to channel my mentor: some day you’ll be a commuter. There are several scenarios that could lead to your commuting. It could be that your airline does not have any pilot base where you live. If that’s the case, you’re going to be a commuter for your entire career. That’s the way it was for my back yard neighbor when I lived in Aurora, Colorado. He was a pilot for Southwest Airlines, based in Phoenix. But he flew for the Colorado Air Guard and needed to be on call locally. So he chose to live in Colorado and would be a commuter forever.

Another case could be that your airline has a base where you live, but you’re not senior enough to hold a bid at the domicile where you live, so you commute until you can transfer to the domicile in your city. In that case, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and you won’t be a commuter for your entire career. It will just seem like it!

There’s a lot of stress associated with commuting, such as constantly checking flight schedules and loads, and always needing to have backup transportation plans. It’s possible, of course, that you fly for an airline that provides transportation for you from the airport closest to your actual home to the airport where you will start your duty assignment. In that case, the uncertainty of whether you’ll get to work in time for your flight will be reduced. But you’ll still have to deal with all the other issues relating to commuting.

In any case, there are certain things that will make your life as a commuter immensely better. I recommend that you have these items in your carry-aboard bag, rather than your checked luggage. Checked luggage can get lost. At some point, yours will. I’ve had my luggage lost numerous times as a commuter. Almost every time I got it back, but not always right away. One time, when I reported the loss to the Baggage Claim attendant, she asked me what was in my suitcase. “A Nikon camera and two Rolex watches,” I lied. Unfortunately, they found my bag!

When I first started commuting, I had the bright idea to leave my suitcase and my flight bag in the locked bag room United had at the terminal. All I carried with me was a small gym bag with a change of underwear. I thought I was pretty darned clever.

That smug feeling persisted until the day when I went to the bag room before one of my flights and discovered that my suitcase had been stolen! It wasn’t a case of another pilot accidentally grabbing my suitcase instead of his own; it was gone for good. So, I had to spend the whole layover – fortunately it was only for one night – in my uniform. But at least I had clean underwear!

After that experience I reevaluated what I would carry with me on every commuter flight. Over the years, with suggestions from other seasoned commuting pilots, I refined the list, and now always have the following items with me in my carry-on bag when I commute (which I still do as a contract instructor pilot):

  • Inflatable neck pillow – If you plan to catch some shut-eye on your commuting flights, a neck pillow is worth its weight in gold. It may prevent the dreaded “airline stiff-neck” we have all experienced. In my opinion, the foam neck pillows are a bit more comfortable, but they take up too much space, so I opt for the inflatable kind. When they’re deflated, they’re very small, and it isn’t much of a chore to blow them up to full size.
  • Eye shade – The eye shade you find in the amenities kit on international flights can really come in handy when you want to sleep, especially on daytime flights. I collected quite a few when I was commuting internationally. As an aside, when I was flying overseas for an Indian carrier, I carried an eye shade in which I had removed one side, so it only covered one eye. I would don it whenever we flew over Iran. I would explain to my copilot I was doing it to prevent flash blindness in the event of a nuclear explosion!
  • Change of clothes – Like I said, sooner or later your checked luggage will get lost. A change of clothing doesn’t take up much room.
  • Noise-canceling headset – If you commute on regional airlines, especially turboprops, these really come in handy. They cut down on a lot of the ambient sounds, and do a great job of minimizing noise stress. In addition, when you wear them they discourage nearby passengers from starting up the conversation they always wanted to have because they “never met an airline pilot in person”.
  • Battery backup – I have a small 22,000 mAh battery with a USB port that provides extra power for my laptop and iPhone on long flights. It’s the size of a small deck of cards, and just a bit heavier.
  • Disposable tooth brush – Even if your luggage doesn’t misconnect, it’s nice to have a way to freshen up at the airport.
  • Skype account – I couldn’t have worked overseas if I hadn’t had a Skype account to call home every night. The cost of international calls with Skype is negligible, and Skype apps are available for smart phones as well as computers. There’s even an app for the iPod, which we don’t normally think of as a phone. When my cell-phone was stolen in Kuala Lampur, I was still able to call home from my iPod at a location that had wi-fi.
  • Internet bookmarks – I recommend bookmarking travel websites on your laptop. If you misconnect at an enroute airport, or find that your normal commuter flight has canceled, you can log onto the internet and see what other possibilities are available.
  • Kindle or other e-reader – Commuters are some of the most well-read people you’ll meet, but until recently their bags weighed a ton. That was due to all the books they carried. Now, everything is different. It’s a total paradigm change. You can carry around the contents of a well-stocked library in a device the size of a paperback. The Nook and Kindle are the two big players, and Kindle is by far the most popular. (I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the aviation adventure novel series by G.E. Nolly is available in Kindle format and you’re guaranteed to love it!)
  • Airline club room one-visit pass – You may find yourself cooling your heels while you wait for flights for several hours in a crowded terminal, and access to an airline club room can really reduce your stress. The quality of your visit can vary by airline and by location, but as a minimum you’ll get a quiet place to relax. Typically, a one-time pass costs about $50 if you buy it at the reception desk, but you can usually find these online for a lot less. I just saw a one-time pass to the United Club, with an expiration date four months in the future, offered on eBay for $16. Another alternative is the Centurion Lounge, for American Express Platinum card-holders. They’re not at every airport, but they are well worth visiting. When I went to the one at DFW, I was treated to a great buffet, as well as a nice selection of magazines and beverages.
  • VPN – Chances are, you’ll be using your laptop at some point on your travels, and your internet access will probably be via the airport or hotel wi-fi. The problem with these networks is that they are totally unsecured. With a Virtual Private Network (VPN), you can conduct online communications without anyone being able to intercept your data. Typical plans are about $3 a month.
  • Anti-bacterial wipes – What you do for a living puts you in the same risk category, germ-wise, as Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame. Everything you touch when you’re on the road is contaminated. Everything. Mothers change diapers on tray tables. Passengers use the lavatories and don’t wash their hands. People cough and sneeze, then take out the magazine in the seat pocket. They touch the seat belt buckle and arm rest. They read the safety information card (in our dreams!). At the hotel, the maids wipe the toilet seat and use the same towel to wipe the television remote control. The list goes on. But all is not lost, at least as long as you’ve gone to the Dollar Store and bought a six-pack of antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizer. (I know you can buy these at your local supermarket, but, after all, I’m writing for pilots!)
  • Protein bars – It’s a good idea to stay well nourished when you travel, and I’ve found protein bars to be a better alternative than airport food or whatever they sell inflight. I always have several in my bag.
  • Water bottle – If you travel in uniform, you may be able to bring a bottle of water with you through the TSA screening checkpoint. Otherwise, I suggest bringing an empty bottle with you and filling it from the water fountain on the concourse. It sure beats paying $4-5 for a bottle from an airport shop. As you undoubtedly know, it’s important to stay hydrated when you fly.
  • Business cards – I always write my airline affiliation and seat number on the back of my business card and pass it up to the flight deck. It informs the crew that they have an Able Bodied Person (ABP) available. Just as important, in the unlikely event there is an empty first class seat, you may find yourself moved forward. It’s happened to me, but not often, and certainly, with today’s full flights, not recently.
  • Airline ID – I always have my ID in view, again to inform the crew I’m an ABP.
  • Flashlight – If you’re traveling at night, it’s a really good idea to have a small flashlight, the kind with a belt clip, with you. The overhead reading light is almost useless for illuminating the area by your feet if you need to look through your bag. In the event of an evacuation, your light could save lives.
  • Travelog 1st Class Sleeper – If you commute over long distances, this thing is really neat. It’s a large blow-up seat cushion you partially inflate and place on your seat before sitting down. It turns your coach seat into a coach recliner. The only way to use it is if you have a window seat, since otherwise you’d need to remove it to let people in your row out to the aisle. When I was commuting 30 hours (!) between Denver and Mumbai, it really made the flight tolerable.

That pretty much completes the list. You may want to modify it to suit your personal needs, but keep in mind the old rule, originally attributed to Kafka: it’s better to have something and not need it than to need it and not have it.

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Dr. George Nolly is a retired United Airlines and Jet Airways B777 Captain. He now serves as a Contract B777 Flight Instructor/Subject Matter Expert. His author website is, and his podcast website is