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"High-flying pilots, lower paying jobs"

Sunday, June 20, 2004

High-flying pilots, lower paying jobs
Bittersweet: Furloughed pilots of major airlines settle for less at smaller
carriers. But many refuse to make the change. 
By Meredith Cohn
The Baltimore (MD) Sun

One day this week, Dawn Rowley flew to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic,
relaxed at a resort for eight hours and flew home to Baltimore.

Not a bad day's work, she thought.
As captain of a 168-seat USA 3000 Airlines' Airbus A320, that's not an
uncommon day for Rowley. And it is one she's happy to have amid the turmoil
in her profession.

She began flying for startup USA 3000 after a seven-month furlough from US
Airways, the Arlington, Va. carrier that emerged from bankruptcy last year
and plans more cost-cutting than hiring.

"I'm so thrilled to have a job after US Airways," Rowley said. "Not everyone
feels this way, but I sleep in my bed every night and I'm content, I'm happy
doing this."

For airline pilots, small is the new big. Smaller airlines that typically
pay less and fly shorter trips are creating thousands of jobs for trained

Furloughs and job freezes continue at some of the major carriers, which
continue to rebound from the shock of Sept. 11, 2001, the SARS outbreak in
Asia and competition from low-fare rivals. On Thursday, United Airlines
suffered a blow when it lost a bid for $1.6 billion in federal loan

For many pilots it's a big step down from a major legacy carrier to a
low-fare regional or national carrier. They had worked years to fly the
biggest planes, earn salaries in the highest brackets and travel to the most
glamorous overseas locales.

But those smaller airlines, based on revenue, plan to create as many as
9,500 pilot jobs by the end of this year, almost enough to replace the 9,700
pilots now on furlough from distressed domestic carriers, according to
industry estimates.

Unlike many big carriers, the low-cost and regional airlines such as
Southwest Airlines and Mesa Air Group are fiscally sound and growing fast.

The industry shift between the have-jobs and the have-nots is sending a
chill through the pilot ranks, some experts say.

More for less 

The low-cost and regional airlines typically require pilots to fly more for
less money and fewer benefits. They also fly smaller planes and typically
don't have many or any overseas routes that experienced pilots desire.

Pilots starting new jobs also get the worst routes and schedules because
they are at the bottom of the airline's ladder, said John Mazor, a spokesman
for the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents 64,000 pilots at 42
airlines in the United States and Canada.

"The airlines have a strong seniority system, and your pay and benefits are
tied to it," he said. "When a pilot switches carriers, he takes his
experience, but not his seniority."

Requirements for airlines vary, but a basic commercial license requires
schooling, testing and 250 hours of flying. Larger and more complex aircraft
flown by major carriers require more hours of flying time. Pilots get those
hours flying for charter and small regional airlines or in the military.

So most senior pilots on furlough from major carriers such as United
Airlines or Delta Air Lines prefer not to start over, Mazor said. Rather,
they harbor hope they can return to their carriers once openings are
generated from growth or retirements.

Many of the 9,700 pilots on furlough have taken non-flying jobs elsewhere,
industry experts say. That's about 11 percent of all licensed commercial

"It's an emotional thing for a pilot," said Kit Darby, president and
publisher of AIR Inc., a pilot career information service in Atlanta.

Not 'the best' 

"The jobs [available] are not at all at the best companies, as far as pilots
are concerned. They don't have the bigger planes. Many of those companies
--Delta, United, American, Northwest and Continental -- all still have
pilots on furlough."

More than 4,000 pilot jobs have been created in the first five months of
this year, almost as many as in all of 2003 -- the worst year for pilot
employment in more than a decade, according to AIR Inc.

The number of job openings is still only two-thirds as high as it was in the
years preceding the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Many of the pilot jobs created this year will end up being filled by former
military, cargo and corporate pilots, rather than furloughed pilots from
major airlines, industry analysts say.

Lifestyle is partially to blame, but so is pay.

Historically a major airline would pay a new pilot with basic experience
$36,000 to start and pay about $189,000 after 10 years. Smaller airlines,
called nationals and regionals, pay anywhere from $18,000 to $28,800 to
start and $42,800 to $81,000 after a decade, according to AIR Inc. and

USA 3000's Rowley, for example, said she took a pay cut to move from US
Airways to the smaller carrier, which flies from Midwest and Northeast
cities to Florida, the Dominican Republic and Mexico.

Rowley said she made up the difference once she was promoted to captain from
first officer -- though she projects that her future earning potential is
probably less than it was at US Airways.

The gap between traditional carriers and discount operators may be closing
some, however. Some majors have sought concessions from their pilots to
avert financial distress or bankruptcy. And some low-cost carriers such as
Southwest are now offering competitive salaries, plus benefits such as

Southwest, considered a major airline even though it's low-cost, now pays
about $41,100 to start and $152,300 after 10 years, according to AIR Inc.

Thousands applied 

Thousands applied this spring for about 400 open jobs at Southwest, which
has never laid off a pilot.

The Dallas airline is a modern success story, posting profits through the
economic downturn and helping revolutionize flying habits by offering cheap,
direct flights between cities that consumers often book over the Internet.

Southwest catapulted Baltimore-Washington International Airport into the
position of fastest-growing among the region's big three airports. After
more than a decade, the carrier is now responsible for nearly half the
flights at BWI. The airline also recently moved into Philadelphia
International Airport, where it's also expanding swiftly.

"We started interviewing [for pilots] in March, for the first time in two
years," said Christine Turneabe-Connelly, a Southwest spokeswoman. "The word
is out."

A small number of the major airlines might not survive over the next several
years even as the economy improves, so pilots might be better off at a
discount or smaller airline, said Jon F. Ash, managing director of the
Washington consulting firm Global Aviation Associates.

"The major legacy network carriers are growing at an average rate of 4 or 5
percent a year, and domestically, less than that," he said. "Low-cost
carriers such as Air Tran and JetBlue that are not new entrants are growing
at a rate of between 10 and 20 percent a year."

Said Ash of the new airlines: "They pay a lot better than nothing."


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