On The Job - Pilots Find Themselves Left Up in the Air



[P][FONT size=4][FONT face=Times New Roman][STRONG]On The Job - Pilots Find Themselves Left Up in the Air[BR][BR][/STRONG][FONT size=3]NEW YORK (New York Times) - [/FONT][/FONT][FONT face=Times New Roman size=3]In the beginning of 2001, Dave Jewell was in demand as a pilot. Having flown jets for 20 years in the Air Force, he had offers from three airlines when he left the service. He happily accepted one from Delta Air Lines, moved his family to Atlanta from St. Louis and began flying MD-88''s that June.[BR][BR]Then came Sept. 11, and everything changed. In mid-October, a letter arrived telling him he was furloughed indefinitely, meaning no flying and no pay.[BR][BR]More than a year later, Mr. Jewell, 44, is working three part-time jobs as he waits for a callback from Delta. He knows that a smaller airline would hire him, but he is afraid to give up his place at Delta, the third-largest American airline. They don''t want anyone just for a short-term period, he said. Either you sign a contract, or you have to resign your seniority number. That''s pretty risky.[BR][BR]When Mr. Jewell goes to the airport, it is for his part-time job training baggage screeners. Though grateful for the work, he says, there''s certainly a part of you that when you see other pilots going out to the airplane to take off, you go, `I wish I was there.'' [BR][BR]While his timing in joining a major airline could probably not have been worse, Mr. Jewell is hardly alone in his misfortune. A decline in passengers attributable to the economy and the terrorist attacks, an increase in competition from smaller, discount airlines and poor management have turned the airline industry into a less friendly place for pilots.[BR][BR]After nearly a decade of quick promotions and rising salaries, the turmoil has caused many pilots to redraw their plans for what is widely viewed as a prestigious and glamorous career. At the end of September 2002, 7,080 pilots were furloughed, about 7.5 percent of the 94,571 pilots with airline jobs in the United States before the terrorist attacks, according to AIR Inc., a career counseling resource organization for pilots, in Atlanta. Furloughs were unheard of in 1999, when 82,790 United States pilots had steady jobs and the industry was hiring at a record pace.[BR][BR]They live with a degree of uncertainty about the future that I think is unique in the history of the industry, said George E. Hopkins, a professor at Western Illinois University and an expert on aviation history.[BR][BR]US Airways is under bankruptcy court protection, and United Airlines is trying to avoid a filing, scrambling to obtain financing before mid-November, when a large debt payment is due. Then there are the two things Dr. Hopkins says American pilots are afraid of: The JetBlues and the Southwests, and the threat of foreign competition.[BR][BR]JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines, two relative newcomers on the national level, are taking business away from the major airlines by flying a limited number of point-to-point routes, between cities like New York and Los Angeles or Washington and Chicago, and charging much lower fares than the bigger airlines, which serve both large and small markets with their hub-and-spoke systems, sometimes losing money on smaller routes.[BR][BR]The second concern is that the government will lift its restriction preventing foreign ownership of American airlines. American pilots, who are the highest paid in the world, are wary they will lose their jobs to foreign pilots, who typically work for less money.[BR][BR]John Cox, a captain who flies an Airbus for US Airways, said that some pilots who were beginning their careers went from pretty much being able to write their own ticket to having to take any job they''ve been offered.[BR][BR]The change has disillusioned many of those who started their careers in the 1990''s, said John Mazor, spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association.[BR][BR]Pilots who have been hired in the last 10 years or so are like the people who invested in the stock market at the beginning of that long golden age, he said. You come to build the expectation that your stock should always give you double-digit returns. For those who moved rapidly up the ranks, made captain in a couple of years and so forth, I think they''re getting a little sticker shock. They need to realize that there are going to be ups and downs.[BR][BR]He added: We have pilots who come in and say, `I just got furloughed. Can they do that?'' [BR][BR]The airline industry has had its cycles of pilot shortages and surpluses. The huge surplus of pilots after World War II, followed by three sharp recessions during the Eisenhower administration, depressed hiring for 20 years. The jet age of the 60''s, a glory time for pilots, gave way to the Arab oil embargo of 1973, which led to a worldwide recession. But the 90''s brought another boom for younger pilots, as those who started in the 1960''s retired and commuter airlines joined the market.[BR][BR]Kit Darby, a United pilot who is president of AIR Inc., is confident that the current down cycle will pass. He has worked at five airlines and been furloughed as many times. Discount airlines, he said, typically do well in this type of period and they don''t do as well in a recovery period. Will they take over the business? Remember People Express? It didn''t happen. (That discount airline was acquired by the Texas Air Corporation and merged with Continental in 1987.)[BR][BR]But for working pilots like Mike Pinho, 45, who flies Boeing 737-800''s out of Atlanta for Delta, flight cutbacks are felt keenly. He may soon have to give up his captain''s seat or move to a different market to keep his pay level - pilots are paid for the hours they are in the cockpit; the bigger the plane, the higher the rate.[BR][BR]It''s funny how this airline business works, Mr. Pinho said. Even with 16 years of seniority with the airline, in my category I''m fairly junior. There is a very real chance I''ll get bumped out of Atlanta and have to commute to New York to fly the same plane I''m on.[BR][BR]Most pilots, in fact, endure years of migrant living, erratic pay and sometimes painful choices. The experience of Bob Branyon is not unusual. When Mr. Branyon, 42, became a second officer for Delta in 1991, he was based in Atlanta but lived in Jacksonville, Fla., with his wife and three daughters. His base was quickly switched from Atlanta to Miami; from Miami to Dallas-Fort Worth; and from Dallas-Fort Worth to New York. Meanwhile, his family remained in Jacksonville while he commuted. Now, after more than 10 years with the airline, he has a job closer to home, as a 737 captain for Delta Express, the low-fare division, in Orlando, Fla. But that may change, too.[BR][BR]That''s slated to shut down in the next year, he said of the Orlando operation, because the company will be flying larger planes out of that city. For Mr. Branyon, that most likely means a move to a new base, a new plane, a demotion to first officer and a pay cut.[BR][BR]Pilot salaries are also not as high, at least across the board, as many people think. The highest-paid captains earn as much as $300,000 a year, placing them among the best-paid hourly workers in the nation, but the averages are less impressive. According to the Air Line Pilots Association, a typical captain is 47 years old with 20 years of service, earning about $150,000 annually. The average first officer is 38 years old with 8 years of experience and a yearly salary of about $93,000. Entry-level salaries can be just a fraction of what a captain makes. At smaller airlines, a first officer may earn as little as $17,775 a year.[BR][BR]IT is not uncommon for a new pilot to have a second job. Many, like Mr.[BR]Branyon, are in the military reserves.[BR][BR]Even at major airlines, most military guys take a substantial pay cut in their first couple of years, said Mr. Pinho, a former Navy pilot. Many of us have already started families at that point, so pay is an issue.[BR][BR]For Mr. Branyon, balancing the reserves and Delta is a juggling act that he performs every month, when he bids his line - that is, submits his preference for routes and waits to hear as an airline computer system, based on seniority numbers, determines where to send him.[BR][BR]Mr. Darby of United and AIR Inc. says that a pilot will typically emphasize the positive side of his job. He brags about working 80 hours a month, but he''s actually gone away from home 340 hours, which is more than anyone even thinks of working, Mr. Darby said. That''s really the rub. You''re gone a lot.[BR][BR]What about those exciting international routes to Paris and Tokyo? At 35 that might be fun, he said. At 45, it''s bearable. At 55 it''s excruciating. (Pilots are required to retire at age 60.) If I had known how hard it was, I would probably still be in the Army, he said.[BR][BR]Dave Jewell remains confident he will hear from Delta. But he admits that some colleagues who have been furloughed are less optimistic.[BR][BR]People are resuming their military careers, he said. Some are going back to the jobs they used to have. There are those who say, `This is all I''ve done and I''ve moved up and I can''t get another job.'' They feel trapped, he said.[BR][BR]And there are one or two, according to Mr. Jewell, who say, `I''m wondering if it''s just time to pack it in.'' [/FONT][/FONT][/P]