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After Working a Flight, Home to ‘Crew Gardens’

NEW YORK — It was just after 10 on a Monday night — “flight night” at Austin’s Ale House in Kew Gardens, Queens — and the place was packed with flight attendants and pilots.

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After Working a Flight, Home to ‘Crew Gardens’
, New York Times

NEW YORK — It was just after 10 on a Monday night — “flight night” at Austin’s Ale House in Kew Gardens, Queens — and the place was packed with flight attendants and pilots.

For anyone curious about the social lives of flight crews after touchdown, here was a glimpse. They had replaced their prim blue uniforms with casual clothes or, in keeping with a theme of the evening, fuzzy pajamas.

A pilot in a unicorn onesie danced to music spun by a flight attendant sidelining as a DJ.

“We’re all really close, and we need to have each other’s backs because we’re all up in the air together,” said Evan Kopilow, 36, a pilot who explained that camaraderie was one reason Kew Gardens has long attracted flight crew members seeking a community of their own.

Thousands of them have apartments or crash pads in Kew Gardens, which has long had the nickname “Crew Gardens” for its popularity with airline flight crews who favor the location, not far from both Kennedy and LaGuardia Airports.

“It’s been a hub for airline personnel forever,” said A.B. Rich, 32, a flight attendant originally from Boston who has lived in Kew Gardens for 10 years and who, like other crew members interviewed for this article, spoke under the condition that his employer not be named, citing airline policy. “It’s cheaper than Forest Hills and it’s safer than Jamaica,” he added, naming nearby neighborhoods.

The neighborhood’s popularity with pilots and flight attendants stretches back to the early days of commercial jet travel in the 1960s.

Most airline personnel are originally from other states but have flight schedules based out of New York and often work on-call. So they either move to Kew Gardens or keep permanent homes elsewhere and rent an inexpensive crash pad there to stay between flights.

They are hard to miss along Lefferts Boulevard: coifed men and women in dark uniforms and out-of-season tans, rolling their luggage to bus stops or airline employee shuttle stops.

Some rent apartment shares, single rooms or simply a bunk bed — or a share of one — in a crowded house that can include more than a dozen flight attendants and pilots cycling through sporadically.

Kew Gardens is recommended to many flight attendants when they go through training and are starting out with irregular schedules and tight budgets, said Cicero Goncalves, who dropped by the Ale House after working a nonstop flight from California.

“That’s why this exists — you’re just starting out and you’re broke and you have to live in New York City and you can’t afford it otherwise,” said Goncalves, 37. “It has this small-town feel because we all work together, so we all kind of know each other.”

A bartender at the Ale House named Ronald Paul, better known as Doogie, has been serving drinks to the flight crowd for nearly 20 years and has become a social director of sorts. He jokes that he cannot fly without seeing crew members whom he has served at the Ale House — making him one pampered passenger.

“They can’t serve me fast enough,” he said.

The flight crowd also frequents the Last Call bar, a block away on Lefferts Boulevard from the Ale House, as well as Hangar 11 on Metropolitan Avenue, an aviation-themed bar and grill. Hangar 11 offers $5 drinks for airline workers and occasional open bar nights for flight attendants. The menu features a Layover margarita and a Mile-High Club cocktail mixed with rum and pineapple.

“This is a neighborhood where you have flight attendants in uniform pulling their luggage, so what better theme can you have” for a bar, said the owner, Will Alba.

JetBlue holds staff parties at Hangar 11. The airline’s chief executive, Robin Hayes, recently showed up to address employees during happy hour. About 80 JetBlue crew members have official addresses in the Kew Gardens area and another 2,000 or so keep crash pads locally, airline officials said.

Crew members at the Ale House said they follow rules set by aviation authorities and airlines forbidding crew members from drinking alcohol at least eight hours before working.

Kew Gardens is hardly the only neighborhood in Queens popular with airport employees. Of the 49,000 workers employed at Kennedy and LaGuardia, 26,424 are registered as living in Queens, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the airports. But no other neighborhood has a cluster of businesses — hair salons, liquor stores, restaurants, dry cleaners — that rely so heavily on airline employees.

Nancy Diaz, 45, owner of the Selfie Style hair salon, said 60 percent of her customers were flight attendants, which makes it tough to keep a regular appointment schedule. “They travel all over the world, so I got to be flexible,” she said.

Locals recall long-shuttered airline bars, such as Gregory’s on Metropolitan Avenue, Spirits tavern and Yer Man’s Irish Pub, where a collection of discarded bras hanging above the bar attested to wild nights of flight personnel shedding their in-flight decorum.

While some flight crew members move away from Kew Gardens once their schedules become more predictable, others settle there.

Jillian Moore, 47, a flight attendant originally from Atlanta, moved into Kew Gardens crash pads 17 years ago. First there was a studio with five other flight attendants, then a three-bedroom home with 10 colleagues. Now she has her own place but can reel off descriptions of crash pads that include a five-bedroom house in nearby Ozone Park with 35 people living in it, dormitory style, and a crash pad with a soda machine that dispenses beer for $1 a can.

Flight crew members often find beds through social media listings and word-of-mouth, said Moore, who herself connects co-workers with beds and rentals and keeps lists of businesses that cater to airline personnel.

“I’m the den mother to all the new hires,” she said, sitting at the Ale House with Capt. Bill Kerz, 59, a pilot who had just flown in from Los Angeles. He lives in Washington, D.C., but has kept a crash pad in Kew Gardens for 20 years.

Rooms can typically be rented for roughly $750 a month, crew members said. A “cold bed” in a group room can go for $350 a month. The least expensive option is a “hot bed,” which could cost $250 a month or less for crew members willing to settle for any available bed, night to night, and provide their own linens.

“It’s cheaper than a hotel,” said Tyler LaDuke, 30, a flight attendant at the Ale House who had just arrived from Los Angeles. He pays $150 a month for a couch in a house in Kew Gardens, “but it’s a big L-couch, so there’s plenty of space.”

“When you take this job, you move to a new city and you don’t know anybody, so it’s nice to live in an area where you have a lot of co-workers,” he added. “It’s an instant social life.”

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