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Map | Growing Group of Super-Commuters Flock to Manhattan

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

WNYC

Some 4,000 commuters travel to and from New York City by air for work -- part of a tiny but rapidly growing group of super super-commuters.

The most recent census numbers show several thousand commute to work by plane each week, enabled by technology and fueled by economic necessity. In census data from a decade ago, this phenomenon was undetectable.  

“What we’re seeing is the collapse of a region’s boundaries,” said Mitchell Moss, the director of the Rudin Center, a New York University transportation think tank. “Distance has been overcome.”

Data crunched by the Rudin Center at New York University for WNYC show how this super-long distance commuting is upending notions of work, home and office.  

As super commuting rises, Moss said a number of notions begin to fray – like “rush hour” and “the work week.”  Many air commuters will fly on Tuesdays and Thursdays because that’s cheapest, and work a day or two at home.  

Scott Sunshine’s commute starts at 4:30 am. He drives about an hour to the airport in Ft. Lauderdale, Fl., takes a two hour flight, then the AirTrain from JFK, to the E train and finally the No. 6 train.  He’s in his midtown Manhattan office by 10 a.m., and four days later, he’s home in the Sunshine State.

“I’m a carpool with a bunch of people from my town who make the same commute,” Sunshine said.

The most recent census numbers show several thousand commute to work by plane each week, enabled by technology and fueled by economic necessity. In census data from a decade ago, this phenomenon was undetectable.  

“What we’re seeing is the collapse of a region’s boundaries,” said Mitchell Moss, the director of the Rudin Center, a New York University transportation think tank. “Distance has been overcome.”

Data crunched by the Rudin Center at New York University for WNYC show how this super-long distance commuting is upending notions of work, home and office.  

As super commuting rises, Moss said a number of notions begin to fray – like “rush hour” and “the work week.”  Many air commuters will fly on Tuesdays and Thursdays because that’s cheapest, and work a day or two at home. 

Sean Donovan can relate. He’s on the 6 a.m. flight every Tuesday from Detroit to New York for his job at a drug company.

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

He ran the numbers. Even paying for his mortgage in Ann Arbor, a studio in Manhattan, and all the airfares, he said he still comes out ahead coming a third of the way across the country for work.

The reasons for the air commuting phenomenon are various – but all recent.  The economic collapse meant there were more well-paying jobs in New York than elsewhere.  But outside New York, housing values dropped 25 percent, and people couldn’t sell their homes.

Nor did they necessarily want to.

And in the last few years, technology has made this easy: commuters can interact with kids via Skype or iChat and can work on the plane.  

 “I never set the ‘Out-of-Office’ reply on my email,” said Dave Gustafson, who lives in Atlanta, works in New York, and has offices in Silicon Valley. “I’m never really out of the office.”

Gustafson said there are benefits to his lifestyle.  

“Because I travel like this I’m not locked into living in a particular area. We’re talking about relocating to another part of the country, and I don’t have to find a new job, so long as I’m near an airport. We can pick our place.”

He’s picking Colorado.

Families say they’ve adjusted, but with reservations.

“It was a lit bit of a disappointment for us because it’s not what we wanted,” said Scott Sunshine’s wife, Hilary. “We were hoping to remain together as a family unit, and initially it was difficult. But at the end of the day, this is what Scott’s been doing.”

Hilary Sunshine says she’s thrilled Florida is her home, and where their four children go to school.

As for Scott, he’s calculated he’s traveled to the moon and back – twice.

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Comments [8]

David from Nassau county

I agree Hell's Kitchen's comment about the price tag. I was very disappointed that Andrea Bernstein's piece didn't include a few sentences along the lines of Mrs Sunshine regards the $x,xxx spent on her husband's commute well worth it because blah, blah, blah.

I'm sure many of us would be interest on the level of income which can sustain that type of commute.

Although not in the same league, I knew two instructors who commuted well over 100 miles to their university. In one case the professor only taught two days a week, arriving about 8:30 AM and leaving about 8:30 PM each day.

In the other, the prof was the departmental chair who would drive down to a rented room on Monday evening and leave for the reverse commute midday on Friday.

Mar. 21 2012 05:17 PM
Jay Smith from Brooklyn

This story encapsulates the stunning waste that is America. Not only material waste, but intellectual waste. Living in a time of incipient energy crises, when the water supply of New York City is threatened by hydrofracking for gas upstate, because there is no coherent state or national energy policy; when peak oil is upon us, and we're moving ineluctably towards oil depletion and economic contraction (including much higher airline prices); when defining and implementing "sustainable" living is absolutely essential to a survivable future, this story of extravagance disgusts. While the story might be worthwhile presenting, why are you not also reporting on peak oil and what it portends for the the transportation future, including air-travel, the future cost of which will undoubtedly curtail the absurd waste of "air commuting".

Mar. 21 2012 10:35 AM
Michael from off the air.

Maybe Andrea can go down to OWS and talk to their super commuters. How they trek to New York to harass and disrupt the lives of everyday New Yorkers.

Mar. 21 2012 10:03 AM
Tom from NYC

I love WNYC and listen faithfully throughout the day and evening. Did I really hear this story twice within one hour today? Are we running out of topics to broadcast?

Best,
Tom

Mar. 21 2012 09:36 AM
Daniel Kusrow from Staten Island, NY

This story was very interesting to me, since I guess I was a super-commuter, but I was one over 10 years ago. Every week for 2 years between Washington and New York riding the Metro Liner (pre-Acela) or either the Delta or U.S. Airways Shuttle. My travel mode depended on weather, and day of the week. Thanks for the story, brought back a lot of memories. Now I live in New York full time.

Mar. 21 2012 08:57 AM
Hell's Kitchen

Really? No discussion of the price tag of this? We're supposed to take at face value the statement that this was cheaper for one family than to find another job? Why do I not believe that entirely?

I was disappointed in the lack of the reporter's critical approach to this. Why didn't she ask the tough questions? Who pays for this? What are the health risks? What's the salary range of people doing this? In short, why should I care beyond the fact that it's a surprising way to commute?

Mar. 21 2012 08:44 AM
a deCamp

A great idea. And add to this niche those of us who volunteer in their communities, are uninsured, etc. etc. The list could go on and on - rightly so.

Mar. 21 2012 08:11 AM
tom murphy from Sunset Park, Brooklyn

I read the original report(Moss et al.) and noted that the total number of 'super-commuters', 59,000(not tiny), was four times as large as the total number of NYC biking commuters, 19,000, and their rate of increase was much greater. Perhaps this highly stressed niche of strivers deserves some federal assistance, or, at the very least, more media attention.

Mar. 20 2012 04:33 PM

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