Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Parking Lot where Pilots Sleep

Los Angeles International Airport

Just off the end of runway 25L here, pilots and mechanics sleep in recreational vehicles in an employee parking lot. These are their at-work crash pads. After putting in their shifts over several days, they fly long distances to their more permanent homes and families—in places like Utah, Wisconsin, Texas and Hawaii.

It's a quiet community with no parties, outdoor beer drinking or gaudy flamingo decorations or lawn chairs allowed. When it's time to go to work, they walk to a shuttle-bus pickup. "We're just a bunch of professionals living away from home, doing the best job we can and being safe at the job," said Steve Young, an airline mechanic who lives part of each week in an RV.

Michal Czerwonka for The Wall Street Journal

At LAX, pilots and mechanics whose permanent homes are far away bunk in RVs in an employee parking lot.

Commuting by airplane is a long-standing and, some say, necessary practice for this cash-strapped industry. Economic turmoil in the industry has spurred more pilots, flight attendants and mechanics to commute as vast schedule changes have moved jobs around the country. Instead of relocating families, many aviation workers—half of all pilots by some counts—simply commute to work by airplane.

They can hitch free rides on flights of their own airline or, in many cases, those of competitors. Most share cots in cramped apartments with other commuting workers to avoid the expense of hotel rooms. All are expected—and indeed required by federal regulation—to show up to work well-rested, no matter how taxing the commute.

"It's the dirty secret of the airline industry," said one airline chief executive, who asked not to be named. His U.S. airline has pilots who commute from as far as South America.

WSJ's Middle Seat columnist Scott McCartney joins the News Hub and reports how many commercial airline pilots are living in trailers.

Long-distance commuting has raised safety concerns about whether flight crews are indeed reporting for work rested and ready. On Feb. 12, 2009, both pilots of Continental Connection 3407 had long commutes before reporting to Newark, N.J., where they began work. They may have rested only on couches in an airport crew room before crashing near Buffalo, N.Y. The National Transportation Safety Board ruled the crash, which killed 50, resulted primarily from pilot mistakes.

"Each pilot made an inappropriate decision to use the crew room to obtain rest before the accident flight," the NTSB said in its report on the accident.

The captain, who lived in Tampa, Fla., apparently spent the night before the accident in the airline's crew room. The first officer traveled all night on the day of the accident from Seattle on cargo flights. Investigators said neither pilot had any overnight accommodations in Newark. (Sleeping in the crew room is against most airlines' policies.) The NTSB agency noted that 93 of 137 Newark-based pilots for Colgan Air Inc., which operated the flight for Continental, commuted by air to work.

The Buffalo crash did prompt the Federal Aviation Administration to seek comments on commuting and study the effect long commutes have on cockpit fatigue. New rules could be proposed this year, but that may not be likely.

"It's a very tough issue," said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt.

A former Eastern Airlines pilot, Mr. Babbitt himself commuted for five years from his home near Washington, D.C., to New York. He says he could get to La Guardia Airport quicker with a one-hour flight than many colleagues who lived in Connecticut and drove several hours to the airport.

"I was the commuter and they weren't," Mr. Babbitt said. "It's just hard to identify. You live 10 miles from the airport and played 36 holes of golf this morning. I commuted in and had a good night's rest. Which one of us is more fit for duty?," said Mr. Babbitt.

Airlines typically have five or 10 cities where they establish crew "bases"—that's where trips begin and end for pilots and flight attendants. Each month, the schedule of flights from a base can change. And each month, the crews assigned to that base can change. Pilots and flight attendants request schedules they want and are assigned based on their seniority.

Schedule cuts through the recession have meant lots of shifting between bases—a few bases were closed, and most shrunk, forcing some workers to change bases.

Some commute to avoid uprooting family when airline jobs move. Some opt to live in states without state income taxes and fly to work. Some workers choose to shift bases to get a preferable schedule or higher pay.

And the airline lifestyle lends itself to commuting. Pilots and flight attendants often work long days and then have several days off. Since they are on the road anyway for their working days, they often aren't sleeping at home anyway. So they commute for a four-day trip, then fly home for a few days.

Regional airline employees have a particularly difficult challenge—they earn far less than pilots and flight attendants at major airlines, and their airlines shift planes and routes around frequently.

"When you're making below $30,000 or $40,000 a year, how much money can you afford to spend on a second home at a base?" asks Air Line Pilots Association President John Prater, a Continental Airlines Inc. captain who, during his flying career, lived near St. Louis and commuted at different times to work in Houston, Newark, Honolulu and Guam.

But there's little doubt that commuting long distances has become more taxing. With planes so full in the past couple of years, pilots and flight attendants say they have trouble getting an empty seat for a free ride since they often are at the bottom of standby seating lists.

To help, Los Angeles World Airports, the city agency that runs LAX, decided in 2005 to let airline workers live in mobile homes and campers in an airport parking lot. (It is likely the only such officially sanctioned airport community in the country.) The village, located in a corner of Lot E, is limited to 100 vehicles. Five are currently on the waiting list. Vehicles have to be certified every six months that they can actually move; they pay $120 a month to park.

Residents say their airlines told them they couldn't be identified by name or airline in articles about the parking-lot village after a story about the place ran in the Los Angeles Times last July.

One pilot who lives in Texas and commutes to a trailer in Lot E says the camper is simply "a place to come and get ready for work." He often flies to LAX the night before his work schedule begins and sleeps in his 1979 RV, where he keeps his uniforms. And when his flying schedule is done, he typically ends up at LAX late in the day—too late to catch a flight back home.

Rather than a hotel room, which he says he can't afford, or an inexpensive shared apartment, he enjoys his camper, wearing ear plugs at night to sleep through the noise of jets overhead.

"I never thought I would be here, but pay cuts force us to be frugal," he said. "Commuting is tough. I'd rather live at a base, but there are a lot of issues with airlines and I can't just pick up and move my family and kids."

Mr. Young, the airline mechanic, is a leader of the commuter community's association, called Airport Employee RV Organization, or AERO. He negotiates with airport officials and has an agreement with his boss that he can be named as long as his airline isn't identified.

Most of the residents have cars (an additional $30 a month for parking). Some have local gym memberships. AERO communicates with its far-flung population by email.

Since the airport doesn't provide electrical or water hook-ups, residents have to improvise. Mr. Young uses solar power for electricity during the day and a small generator at night. His RV has a 100-gallon water tank that provides about eight days' of showers. The airport doesn't allow a propane truck to service the RVs, so residents have to drive 12 miles to fill propane tanks.

The RV community, he says, enhances safety and job security for commuters. "This is all about being at the job and being well-rested," Mr. Young said.

Harrisburg, PA Weighs Bankruptcy

HARRISBURG—Pennsylvania's capital city faces a time-consuming process with an uncertain outcome should it file for a rare municipal bankruptcy, experts told the City Council Monday evening.

Harrisburg is coping with $288 million in debt related to a failed revamp of an incinerator. The $68 million in payments on the debt this year exceed the city's annual budget.

City Controller Daniel C. Miller has advocated filing for municipal bankruptcy, known as Chapter 9, to deal with the debt.

"We are looking for the least worst option," he told the seven-member council during a committee meeting Monday, and added, "bankruptcy is a viable option" and one that "does provide immediate benefits."

J. Gregg Miller, attorney at Pepper Hamilton, talked about the Chapter 9 filing of Westfall Township, the first municipality in Pennsylvania to restructure under the bankruptcy code. The Pike County municipality was facing a legal claim of over $20 million to a real-estate developer whose civil rights were violated; the settlement reduced the payment to $6 million over 20 years with no interest, Mr. Miller told the council.

A bankruptcy judge in a Chapter 9 case can order a cramdown—a settlement that a municipality prefers even if its creditor opposes it, said Mr. Miller. Key, though, is that the settlement must have the support of at least one class of impaired creditors.

In addition, judges can't force asset sales or liquidate a municipality, Mr. Miller said. A Chapter 9 filing also sparks an automatic stay of all litigation and gives municipalities a chance to reject union contracts.

But there are major drawbacks to the "expensive" and "time-consuming" municipal bankruptcy, Mr. Miller warned. Pennsylvania's community and economic development department must authorize the filing, and plays a big role in the process. Fees from Mr. Miller's firm and accountants totaled $600,000 in the Westfall filing.

Also, "the outcome is always uncertain," Mr. Miller said. "You really can't know where the case will come out" unless agreements are struck with creditors beforehand.

The council took no action during the committee meeting, which was aimed to help the members "gather data and information," said Council President Gloria Martin-Roberts.

However, council vice president Patty Kim said during the meeting she was opposed to filing for bankruptcy, while another councilwoman commented that she thinks municipal bankruptcy may be the best option because taxpayers can't afford higher taxes or asset sales. "This city is so indebted, there is no way out," said Susan Brown Wilson.

Meanwhile, the city over "the next week or so" may finalize a forbearance agreement withAssured Guaranty Municipal, which is responsible for the bulk of the bond payments should the city and Dauphin County fail to make them, said the city's interim finance director, Bob Kroboth.

The bond insurer, a unit of Assured Guaranty, has proposed a forbearance agreement giving the city 90 days to develop a plan to address its debt load. The city is requesting a longer period, and is also working on a forbearance agreement with Covanta Energy, which operates the incinerator and gave the city a $25 million loan.

In addition, the state's community and economic development department is reviewing Harrisburg's request to fund several recommendations made by a consultant paid for by the state, such as merging 911 services with Dauphin County and managing the city's fleet, said Fred Reddig, executive director of Governor's Center for Local Government Services. "That process is moving forward as we speak."

No matter what option the city takes—filing for bankruptcy or seeking financially distressed status under state law—hard work and negotiations with creditors are necessary, said Perry Mandarino, head of restructuring at Price Waterhouse Coopers. "In any restructuring there are no silver bullets," he told council members. "There are no easy answers."

Los Angeles Outlines Budget Cuts

LOS ANGELES—In an effort to close a $485 million budget hole projected in the next fiscal year, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa Tuesday afternoon proposed eliminating 3,546 city jobs and slashing city services—from patching fewer pot holes to cutting library hours.

Most of the positions slated for elimination have already been vacated by early retirements or transfers to other city departments that do not draw from the city's main fund. But the mayor's plan would require 750 fresh layoffs in the next fiscal year, which starts July 1.

"We can't allow this economic storm to blow us off course," Mr. Villaraigosa said in his state of the city address Tuesday. "One year of cost-cutting won't solve this crisis. We must make lasting structural changes....this budget provides a beginning path."

The mayor's $4.34 billion budget proposal comes after weeks of political and financial drama that had the city's departments and leaders at odds as the city inched toward bankruptcy and saw its credit ratings drop.

The city's Department of Water & Power had refused to transfer a planned $73.5 million to the city's general fund after the city council blocked a rate hike. That prompted city controller Wendy Gruel to warn that the nation's second largest city could run out of money by May 5, unless the transfer was made. Mr. Villaraigosa named a new interim chief for the Department of Water & Power; city officials said Tuesday they expected the utility to transfer the funds.

"We cannot allow our city family to stand divided against itself," Mr. Villaraigosa said in his speech Tuesday night.

The City Council must approve Mr. Villaraigosa's proposed budget.

The city's financial planners said the city was given a small boost when their forecasts about a drop in property taxes turned out not to be as dire as initially believed. The city also expects to take in $53 million in one-time revenues by leasing parking garages and upgrading and fixing meters.

But most of the city's savings—around $239 million— depends on job cuts and salary reductions through furloughs. Many of the city's 22,000 union-represented workers will be required to take between 16 and 26 furlough days in the next year, according to the budget proposal.

The budget could change considerably in the next few weeks if Mr. Villaraigosa has his way. The mayor called on union leaders to consider pay cuts and greater contributions to their health care in order to avoid layoffs and service cuts.

"These cuts will be severe. These cuts will be painful," Mr. Villaraigosa said. "We can do better. We can avoid many of these cuts. The mayor's office, city council, labor leaders, we can prevent further layoffs. We must all be willing to take cuts in our pay."

Union leaders have said their members have already agreed to early retirements and a 6% pay cut this fiscal year in order to save the city money. Last week, a coalition that represents the bulk of city workers released its own budget plan that included $400 million in savings, union officials said.

"We have come up with alternatives to cutting city services. We've put our ideas on the table time and time again," said Barbara Maynard, spokeswoman for the coalition of unions that represents the bulk of city workers. "It's not necessary to continue to hurt families and the economy of our region through these cuts."

Write to Tamara Audi at tammy.audi@wsj.com

Metro and 3 Portland counties approve urban expansions

By Eric Mortenson, The Oregonian

February 08, 2010, 10:19PM
RESERVES.jpgView full sizeMetro and the three Portland-area counties rolled the dice on a collaborative future Monday, approving a long-range planning map that designates which areas will be developed and which will be reserved for farms and forests for the next 40 to 50 years.

The unprecedented agreement to designate urban and rural reserves capped two years of meetings and public hearings, stacks of maps and reports and tense exchanges among the "Core Four" -- representatives of Metro, the regional government, and Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties.

The agreement isn't a done deal. It could still unravel by the end of the month if rival counties object to each other's handling of a few contentious areas.

But officials were cautiously optimistic following the 4-0 vote. Commissioner Jeff Cogen of Multnomah County noted that the partners agree to "99.5 percent" of land designations that emerged Monday.

"No one else in the country has done anything like this," Cogen said. "The reason is, it's really hard."

The map approved by the group designates about 270,000 acres as rural reserves, including some of the state's best farm land in fast-growing Washington County. It designates about 27,000 acres as urban reserves -- areas where the urban growth boundary will be expanded to allow development.

This reserves designation process, approved by the Legislature specifically for the Portland area, is significant because it attempts to provide long-term certainty to urban planning.

Cities, property owners and developers, knowing that future growth for the next 40 to 50 years will happen in selected urban reserves, can make decisions now about where to put streets, water and sewer lines and other infrastructure. Farm and forest operators can make crop and equipment decisions, knowing neighboring development won't cramp the rural reserves for years to come.

But the dice are still tumbling regarding key sections labeled as "areas with options," meaning the Core Four could not agree how they should be designated. They include land adjacent to Cornelius and Sherwood in Washington County, cities that have pressed for more "urban reserves" land because they hope to attract industrial and other development.

Clackamas County, represented by Commissioner Charlotte Lehan, said the growth favored by Washington County's aggressive cities, county officials and development groups put some of the state's "foundation" farmland at risk. In the months leading up to Monday's decision, the Washington County Farm Bureau sided with conservation groups such as 1000 Friends of Oregon to ask for more "rural reserves."

With the sides staring at deadlock, Multnomah County's Cogen suggested a way out: The Core Four approved the wide swaths of land on which they agreed -- the overwhelming amount of land at stake within the three counties. The counties now will work individually with Metro to designate the option areas by the end of February. However, the process could still fall apart if, for example, Clackamas County opposes the deal Washington County strikes with Metro.

"It's still possible to snap defeat out of the jaws of victory," as Washington County Commissioner Tom Brian put it.

The partner counties should be circumspect about the agreements each strikes with Metro, Brian said, adding pointedly that they should not be "looking over their neighbor's fence" and complaining about acreage "25 miles away from the county line."

Commissioner Lehan of Clackamas County said disagreements over future growth surrounding Cornelius and Sherwood were nearly enough to make the counties "throw up their hands and walk away."

With the solution adopted Monday, "I think we're close enough to get there," she said.

Brian said the urban reserves represent only an 11 percent expansion of the urban growth boundary, while the region's population is projected to grow by 60 to 70 percent over the same period.

That's likely to result in compact, vibrant communities, he said.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The New San Francisco Suburbs, a Plane Ride Away

In the quest for vibrant, affordable neighborhoods, some Bay Area professionals are moving north—way north, to Portland and Seattle.

Scott McNeely is a transplant to the Pacific Northwest who kept his job in the Bay Area. Mr. McNeely, online director for San Francisco-based Internet travel company Viator Inc., used to live in the Mission District. But several years ago, he and his wife began pining for more kid-friendly environs after becoming parents.

Sol Neelman for The Wall Street Journal
Sol Neelman for The Wall Street Journal

Scott McNeely telecommutes to his job in San Francisco from an office space in downtown Portland, top; he and his wife, Aimee Panyard, above, with Emmett, age 4, and Hollis, 10 months, moved to Oregon in search of more space for their family.

High real-estate prices across the Bay Area made moving even to the East Bay a stretch. So about 18 months ago, Mr. McNeely and his family moved 650 miles north, to Portland. There, they bought a four-bedroom house for about $350,000 that was large enough to accommodate his two children and a Great Dane. Viator agreed to let Mr. McNeely telecommute, with occasional trips to its San Francisco headquarters.

"If we were going to move to the equivalent of the suburbs of the Bay Area, why not move to a place like Portland?" says Mr. McNeely, 40 years old.

There has been a northward migration for years by Bay Area residents looking for everything from affordable real estate to better public schools. But moving usually meant giving up their jobs, which are generally more lucrative and plentiful here than in the Pacific Northwest, especially for technology workers.

Now it is getting more practical for people to live in the Pacific Northwest and continue working for Bay Area-based companies, as more employers loosen their telecommuting policies. Technology also is making it easier to stay connected all the time, and travel between San Francisco and cities to the north has become more convenient, though hard data on Bay Area transplants to the Northwest who retain their local jobs are hard to come by.

Alex Payne plans to move to Portland with his wife next month, while keeping his job at San Francisco-based Twitter Inc. Last October, Mr. Payne caused a stir when he blogged about his frustrations with San Francisco's quality of life, including criticisms of its public transit and high cost of living.

In contrast, the 26-year-old believes Portland is a "model of urban design." Mr. Payne is especially impressed with the revitalization of Portland's Pearl District, a once-grimy industrial neighborhood that now teems with art galleries and restaurants. Portland's lower property costs also are appealing, though he initially plans to rent.

"It's actually affordable by mere mortals," Mr. Payne says. "I looked at buying a place in San Francisco, but you're talking a half million dollars for a hovel."

San Francisco's median home value in late February was $691,600, compared with $362,800 for Seattle and $236,100 for Portland, according to real-estate site Zillow Inc. San Francisco's median home price increased 1.1% over the past year, while the average price fell 7.1% in Seattle and 9.9% in Portland, according to Zillow.

It is easier to take advantage of the lower cost of living up north when Bay Area immigrants are able to bring their salaries with them. The average base salary for Bay Area tech workers is $101,701, compared with $86,816 in Seattle and $75,241 in Portland, estimates online career site Glassdoor Inc.

Still, there are downsides to the long-distance arrangement. Mr. McNeely, for one, says traveling to San Francisco every few weeks can be a challenge because he has young children. He also finds it hard accepting that he is a visitor in the city that was once his home, and says he has to stifle the urge to give cab drivers directions.

Sol Neelman for The Wall Street Journal

Scott McNeely with his wife and sons at their house in the Sellwood neighborhood of Portland, Ore.

Mr. Payne says his biggest worry about his move is that he will miss out on chance conversations with co-workers. From Portland, he plans to rely heavily on video conferencing and screen-sharing technology that will allow him to collaborate with other Twitter engineers.

Mr. Payne says the short plane ride between Portland and San Francisco—about one hour and 45 minutes—was a big factor in making the arrangement work, since he plans to spend four or five days a month at Twitter's headquarters. Twitter will reimburse him for the flights, he says. In Seattle, commuters can now bypass the city's thick traffic by hopping on a light-rail line to the airport, while San Francisco and Portland began offering similar transit options in the past decade.

It also is easier for commuters along the West Coast to stay connected while in the air. Virgin America, with Seattle-to-San Francisco fares of $79 each way, has become especially popular with the tech set, because it offers in-flight Wi-Fi Internet access and power outlets.

Alaska Airlines recently began running advertisements promoting flights between Portland, San Jose and Austin as "nerd birds," because of the preponderance of tech-industry commuters shuttling between those locations.

For the past seven years, Joe Steele has commuted weekly from the Seattle area to his job south of San Francisco as a vice president at Gilead Sciences Inc., a biotech company in Foster City, Calif. Mr. Steele, a 15-year employee at Gilead, moved to the Pacific Northwest after a short stint for the company in Boulder, Colo., so he could be closer to family in the region and to enjoy amenities that would be far more costly in Northern California.

His home in Vaughn, Wash., about an hour southwest of Seattle, is on 12 acres on the waterfront and includes space for a barn and three horses. "We would not be able to find a place like this in the Bay Area," says Mr. Steele, who pays for his own flights to Gilead headquarters.

Write to Nick Wingfield at nick.wingfield@wsj.com