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The Weird World of Airline Crew Crashpads

12/10/2013 11:53 am ET | Updated Feb 09, 2014

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Visit flyertalk.com, where this piece first appeared.

There is nothing so quintessentially "crew life" as a crashpad. They make our commuting life possible. You hear flight attendants and pilots say it a lot: "Flying is a lifestyle." For better or for worse, nothing exemplifies that like these voluntary barracks. What else do you call a place with full-grown adults sleeping in bunk beds?

I don't know of any place as crashpad-y as New York City's Kew Gardens, a neighborhood located halfway between JFK and LGA. Drop yourself off at the intersection of Metro and Lefferts and you'll see. You certainly wouldn't want to play a drinking game that consisted of sitting at a bar with a view on the road, taking a drink for every rollaboard you spotted. You'd be slurring before you knew what hit you. Seriously, don't play that game.

A crashpad is an apartment or house generally intended for sleeping between work trips. To be clear, the airlines don't have any involvement with this, we do it privately. (If we want to commute, that's our business, the airlines would say.) However, some airlines are good enough to offer shuttles for their employees from The Gardens. There's also a cab service that caters to crew members which offers a half-hourly shuttle to either airport, 4 a.m.-10 p.m.

These pied-a-terres might be used by commuters or lived in by new hires stretching their meager paychecks. Whatever the reason, we pile in as many people as possible to keep the rent affordable. Modeling is the only other profession that I know of that spawns such living conditions, as most models are similarly too poor to live in New York/Paris/etc., but travel often. As a new hire I used to remind myself of that to make me feel better when crashpad life felt too unglamorous. I don't think it helped.

You'll find two main categories: "hot bed" or "cold bed" (some say "hot/cold sheeting"). A cold bed is all yours. You can leave your sheets on it. No one else is going to mess with it. In this set-up, even with so many roommates, you'll spend many nights alone in the apartment. This will run you $250-400 per month in New York.

A hot bed is first-come, first-serve. You either bring your linens or store them in a cubby/drawer when you're not there, searching the bedroom for a an unoccupied mattress by the light of your cellphone when you arrive.

There are degrees of hot-beddedness. It's like the question of how madly an airline overbooks a flight. The formula just assumes some people won't show up, and most of the time it works. It might be a place with 10 beds and 15(?) "roommates" -- only in cases of, say, severe whether shut downs do you usually run short of beds. In that case, you better get there first or hope there are several sofas. At the other end of the spectrum you get something almost like a crew hotel where you call and see if there's a place available to reserve amongst all the absolute strangers. You'll probably get little sleep and a sign-up sheet for 10-minute shower slots.

If you opt for a cold bed, you can find same-sex or co-ed arrangements, mixed pilots and flight attendants (or not), all one airline or not. I really like being with people from different airlines. It's insightful to hear our different issues (always good to be reminded, no airline is perfect) and make more cross-connections.

Just like in an airplane cabin you also get lots of different crashpad cultures, naturally determined by the person who runs the joint. Usually it's a fellow crewmember who does it in exchange for some perk, be it a break on the rent or just a better bed choice. The only things that are consistent are condiment hoarding in the kitchen and some sociology adventures!

There's so much more to say about crashpad life, but now you've got a good start. We'll call this Crashpad 101, and -- if you like -- I'll come back another time to dig into some of the gossi-- er, I mean, details.

Sarah Steegar is a flight attendant and writer. This piece first appeared on flyertalk.com.

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