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"Pilots Find Themselves Left Up in the Air"



Tuesday, October 29, 2002

Pilots Find Themselves Left Up in the Air
By JULIE FLAHERTY
The New York (NY) Times


AT 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. 

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.

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."

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.' "

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. 

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. 

"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. 

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." 

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.

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. 

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."

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. 

"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."

He added: "We have pilots who come in and say, `I just got furloughed.
Can they do that?' "

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.

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.)

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. 

"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."

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. 

"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.

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. 

IT is not uncommon for a new pilot to have a second job. Many, like Mr.
Branyon, are in the military reserves.

"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."

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.

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."

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. 

Dave Jewell remains confident he will hear from Delta. But he admits
that some colleagues who have been furloughed are less optimistic. 

"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.

And there are one or two, according to Mr. Jewell, who say, " `I'm
wondering if it's just time to pack it in.' "


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