Extreme commuting: When a 10-hour transcontinental flight is just another trip to the office

Extreme commuting: When a 10-hour transcontinental flight is just another trip to the office
Image: Fanqiao Wang for Quartz
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A few years back, JetBlue Airways founder David Neeleman left his company and launched a new airline in Brazil. The airline, Azul, flies 22 million people a year, employs 12,000, and is the fastest-growing carrier in the region.

You’d think running such a large, complex operation would require a move to South America. But Neeleman commutes to his Sao Paulo headquarters every week from his home in Connecticut, taking the 10-hour redeye on Sunday nights and returning on Thursdays. This way, he says, he doesn’t have to uproot his family of 10 kids.

“My wife wasn’t so interested in moving,” said Neeleman, who recently bought TAP, Portugal’s national airline and is now commuting there as well. “We had all these kids playing [American] football and lacrosse. They don’t have those sports in Brazil.”

David Neeleman / photo by Gianfranco Beting
David Neeleman / photo by Gianfranco Beting

In the movie Up in the Air, George Clooney successfully captures that road warrior ethos that has long been associated with, say, business consultants from firms like McKinsey & Co. who work on projects outside their hometowns and spend most of their week in a hotel. But now, more and more executives around the world are choosing to take on lengthy commutes on a permanent basis, even if their jobs don’t demand it. Increasing globalization and tech-enabled workplace flexibility are certainly part of the reason why. But a more child-centered approach to parenting also seems to be a factor, as these executives make other major sacrifices in order to balance their professional and home lives.

Data are relatively sparse, but nevertheless compelling. One study on relocation trends in the US from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the rate of interstate relocations for jobs in 2013 had dropped 51% from its 1948-1971 average. Another study conducted this year by the market research firm Barna Group, found that nearly 60% of adults never plan to move, and out of the adults who did move, 42% moved for family, while just 28% relocated for a job. And this isn’t just an American phenomenon.

“Relocation is a problem for people,” said Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute in New York, which is currently studying this issue. “Men in particular, are putting more value on being a good parent, not just a provider, and in some sense that might mean not moving their kids.”

In many cases, the commuters aren’t just doing it for their kids’ stability, but also because of their spouse’s career. Erik Church lives in Toronto, but works in Vancouver, more than 2,000 miles away, where he is the chief operating officer of O2E Brands, the company that owns 1-800-GOT-JUNK?. He took the job four years ago, but decided to commute, not only for his 9-year-old daughter, but also because his wife’s medical practice was established in Toronto.

Erik Church / photo by David Tam
Erik Church / photo by David Tam

He now takes a five-hour flight to Vancouver every Sunday night or Monday morning and leaves on Thursdays at 5:00pm. If his daughter has a school recital, he will fly there in one day, catch the recital, and fly back again. His daughter once told her teacher that her dad worked at the airport.

“I promised my colleagues I will never use my commute as a reason for why I can’t make a meeting,” said Church, who has regularly scheduled Facetime appointments with his daughter every day. “Just because I choose to live this way won’t affect them.”

Christine Silvers took a high profile job in May as the chief medical officer of HealthReveal Inc., a Manhattan-based healthcare technology company, on the condition that she could stay in her hometown outside of Boston.

Christine Silvers
Christine Silvers

Though she mostly telecommutes, two or three times a week Silvers wakes up at 3:30am to catch either the train or shuttle to New York, heads to the office, and takes the 6:00pm train home arriving at 10:00pm. The long days are grueling, but this way she doesn’t have to uproot her three kids, or leave a town she calls home.

“I wouldn’t want to pull my kids out of their school or their friendships,” Silvers said. “We are very rooted in the area.”

Some executives are choosing insane schedules to have the family life they want. Lior Krolewicz started an online marketing consulting firm in Los Angeles in 2011. But a year later he and his wife decided to start a family, something they wanted to do in Israel.

Now Krolewicz runs his company, Yael Consulting, from an office in a seaside town just north of Tel Aviv, but keeps the exact same hours as if he were still in LA, where his clients are. At 7:00pm he leaves home for his office, eats lunch at midnight, then finishes his workday around 7:00am Israel time. He takes his two daughters to pre-school and goes to sleep.

Krolewicz said the industry he works in is very competitive and he needs to be available when his clients need help, but admits his work life is taking a toll.

“I am all screwed up and it’s not something your body gets used to,” said Krolewicz, who relies on caffeine to make it all work. “My friends think I’m crazy and my wife gets irritated with my schedule. Especially when she’s in the house during the day and I’m sleeping.”

Of course the constant travel has drawbacks. Neeleman finds it disorienting to split his time between the US and Brazil because the seasons are reversed. “I go down there and it’s 90 degrees, and come home and it’s nine degrees,” he said. “That’s the hardest part.”

But most of the time, he and the other commuters say they don’t think twice about the long hours they spend in the air or away from home. They have their travel survival techniques down. Neeleman for one, sleeps less the night before a flight so he’s extra tired, and brings his own pajamas and goose down pillow. He won’t take Ambien but if he’s desperate to sleep, sometimes melatonin. Church sets his watch to the new time zone when he gets on the plane and forces himself to go by that time.

Carmen Benitez, managing director of Fetch Plus Inc., a technology company based in Singapore, works out of her home. But when she does have to travel to meet with her team or clients in Australia and Manila, she makes the trip in one day and flies back and forth through the night so she can take her kids to school the next day. She tucks a dress, heels and toiletries into a tiny laptop bag, and that’s all she takes.

You can follow Miriam on Twitter @miriamsouccar