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Transportation Nation

‘Supercommuters’ board airplanes to get to work

Marketplace Contributor May 18, 2012
Transportation Nation

‘Supercommuters’ board airplanes to get to work

Marketplace Contributor May 18, 2012

Tess Vigeland: I’m pretty lucky. I have about a 20-minute commute to the Frank Stanton studios each day. That is nothing if you live in Los Angeles. Folks can easily spend an hour — two, even — getting to work.

But even that sounds short to some so-called “super-commuters.” Folks who can’t just jump in the car or catch a bus or a train.

From the Transportation Nation project at WNYC in New York Andrea Bernstein has the story.

Andrea Bernstein: Your morning commute might sound like this:

Sound of car keys, car beeping and radio

Sean Donovan’s sounds like this:

Airplane stewardess: Once again ladies and gentlemen, we do need all passengers in their seats with their seat belts securely fastened in order for us to pull back from the gate.

Donovan’s trip to work starts in Ann Arbor, Mich. at 4:16 a.m. His wife drives him to the Detroit airport, he flies to LaGuardia, then takes the bus to the New York subway.

Sean Donovan: Typically, I’m at work by nine o’ clock.

Bernstein: How long have you been doing this?

Donovan: I’m frightened to say it’s been four years now.

Donovan worked as a drug researcher in Ann Arbor. But his company moved to New York. So Donovan made a crazy decision –- he’d commute. He was too nervous to do anything else.

Donovan: In the industry I’m in, you never know from month to month or year to year if you’re going to have a job.

He leaves his wife at home with their three kids each week for the four days he’s in New York.

Bernstein: How she feel about this arrangement?

Donovan: That’s a good question. You can turn it off. I’ve got to think about this.

Donovan laughs

But I let the recorder run, and Donovan tells me he doesn’t really feel he has a choice.

Donovan: We talk about whether we should continue doing this or not or when is this going to end. I think if my wife was working, then we wouldn’t be as reliant on my income as we are now. At this point, she’s not working. So at least in the near-term, this seems palatable and I really enjoy what I do.

“Palatable.” I heard that a lot from super-commuters. They don’t love this lifestyle, but they’ve resigned themselves to it. And the numbers do add up. Because living in New York City costs so much, it’s still cheaper to pay for a house in Ann Arbor and rent a studio apartment in midtown Manhattan and shell out for all the airfares.

Mitchell Moss: Distance has now been overcome.

Mitchell Moss, who runs a transportation think tank at New York University, says this is a recent and rapidly growing phenomenon. 43,000 people around the country fly to work. Moss says, you really couldn’t find anyone who did this just 10 years ago.

Moss: What we’re seeing is the collapse of a region’s boundaries that it used to be the labor market was drawn from within a hundred miles or an hour of commuting.

After the financial collapse, big cities still had high-paying jobs. But the housing market was sinking, so people couldn’t sell their houses to move to those jobs.

Introduce the super-commuter. These super-commuters are changing the idea of rush hour, the work week, even home.

Another super-commuter I spoke with, Scott Sunshine choose Florida. Yeah, the sunshine state. Seven years ago, Sunshine moved to Fort Lauderdale, with the idea he’d sell his financial public relations business in New York. But…

Scott Sunshine: 2008 hit, and when 2008 hit, the economy in Florida was really badly impacted and starting a business -– particularly in financial services –- was just not in the cards.

Long-distance commuting has become so commonplace that Sunshine has a carpool with a group of locals who also travel to New York for work.

Sunshine: I’m now at seven years of doing this and I don’t see any reason frankly to stop. I travel about 126,000 miles a year, and over the seven years, I have travelled enough to fly to the moon and back twice.

Skype phone ringing

I reached Scott’s wife, Hilary Sunshine at her home near Fort Lauderdale, via Skype. That’s the way a lot of these families stay in touch. She says she loves her Florida house, she loves the schools -– and her kids are healthier and happier than they were in New York. But you can hear just a little tremor in her voice when she talks about the day she realized Scott’s commute to New York would be permanent.

Hilary Sunshine: It was a little bit of a disappointment for us because it’s not what we wanted. We were hoping to remain together as a family unit.

On Tuesday, Scott will fly to New York, and on Friday he’ll fly home. And the next week, he’ll do it again.

In New York, I’m Andrea Bernstein for Marketplace.

Vigeland: We asked you last week to tell us about your money dreams for an upcoming show. Well, keep ’em coming! We want to know, do you bathe in banknotes like Scrooge McDuck? Maybe you dig up buried treasure like Indiana Jones. Let us know what’s going on in your subconscious. Tweet me @radiotess, write us on Facebook or e-mail us.

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