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LAX parking lot is home away from home for airline workers

Buffeted by their industry's turbulence, airline employees save money by living part time in a motor home colony at LAX.

July 20, 2009|Dan Weikel

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."

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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.

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