How far would you go to be able to fly for free?

If you’ve been wondering where I’ve disappeared to these past few weeks, you can look no further than the International terminal at the airport in San Franicsco. It seems that lately I’ve been working so many 17 hour shifts (yes, that’s 17 hours straight), that I’ve practically taken up permanent residence in the airport. I’m like Tom Hanks in the movie Terminal, only instead of camping out in some, cozy, abandoned concourse, I sleep on a make-shift bed (made out of two plastic chairs), in the employee break-room.

And if that sounds a bit extreme to you, well it’s all par for the course when you work for an airline. Back when I first started, I used to think that my co-workers were crazy when they told me that they regularly did this. No way was a job worth sleeping on a pile of abandoned airplane magazines with the “Attention in the concourse. The airport is now at threat level orange…” announcement ringing in your ears all night. Free, unlimited air travel or not, my downtime was too important to give up for a job that barely pays over minimum wage.

But it’s amazing how quickly your priorities change when a week-long trip to Colombia is dangled in front of your eyes. A chance to explore South America with one of my best friend’s from Germany? Sure, I’ll sign my life away. And then before I knew it, I was shivering in a sleeping bag in my car in the airport employee parking lot, trying to block out the smell of jet fuel and ignore the roar of the plane engines overhead that were so loud, they made the entire car vibrate.

Because when you only have four hours between when one shift ends and the other begins, wasting precious sleep time on the drive to and from work just seems silly. And sleeping on the carpeted floor in the supervisor’s office and then paying $10 to use the airport shower starts to seem like a perfectly rational solution.

But as I found out the hard way, three hours of sleep is not enough to get you through a shift of canceled flights and irate passengers. And caffeinated beverages only get you so far…In the middle of my 10th work day in a row, I had a melt down.

At least that’s the only way I can explain why I started crying at the ticket counter. Yes, I actually burst into tears, and right in the middle of checking in a passenger. I was so mortified, I just mumbled something about the bag tag printer being jammed and then ducked behind the counter to try to pull myself together. Unfortunately the problem with pep talks that begin with “Stop crying!” is that they just make you cry even harder.

Thankfully the man I was checking in pretended not to notice. He just smiled and looked sort of confused as I explained to him in a shaky voice, my eyes brimming with tears, that his flight would be departing at gate A12.

Afterwards, I excused myself, walked outside and sat on the long-term parking bus stop in a complete daze. I felt like I was 80 years old and suffering from arthritis. My bones and joints ached and my head was pounding. I had a chest cold and a fever and the only thing I’d consumed all day was three red bulls and a hand-full of raisins.

What the Hell was I doing to myself? I felt like I’d thrown myself into a war zone. I was a prisoner of war, held hostage by my job and subjected to mind games and deprived of sleep and adequate food (I’m sorry but stale sandwiches from the airport food court do not count). This was torture. And the most insane part of it was, was that I’d volunteered for it. I was driving myself crazy and all so that I’d be able to a week off and go to Colombia, of all places.

Sometimes I wonder if all the stress and insomnia is worth it. Perhaps it would be better if I just got a real job that paid more so that I could afford to purchase airfare like a normal person. Because with every airline competing so fiercely for business right now, flights are fairly inexpensive these days. Just last weekend, for example, I checked-in passengers who’d bought their tickets from San Francisco to New York online for only US $29.00.

The irony of the job is that while I have these wonderful travel benefits, I get paid too little to be able to enjoy them. Sure our flights are free, but that’s only a small portion of the total cost of travel. When you factor in the added expense of hotels, dining out and sight-seeing, a weekend trip to anywhere can cost hundreds of dollars.

Furthermore, when you live in a city as expensive as San Francisco, the cost of living is so high that it takes nearly all of your pay-check just to be able to make rent. Most of my co-workers either live with their parents or else rely on a spouse or significant other’s source of income to make ends meet.

It’s for reasons like these that there are days when I fantasize about quitting; about trading in the free flights for a desk job somewhere. But then days like tomorrow stop me…because tomorrow I’m flying to Los Angeles for the day so that I can get a haircut…for no other reason because I can.

It’s for reasons like this one that I love working for an airline.

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