Saturday, November 13, 2004 Airlines' financial woes throw pilot profession into a tailspin By Amy Joyce The Washington (DC) Post WASHINGTON -- In the days when United Airlines was flying high, Patrick Downey exulted in being paid to live his passion. When the former Navy pilot went to work for United in 1999, he felt he'd landed his dream job, one that would provide a comfortable salary to make a happy life in McLean, Va., with his wife and two daughters. But in a round of cuts, Downey first took a 30 percent hit in his paycheck and then, last November, he was furloughed. Today Downey has a new life. He runs a small contracting firm with another pilot, building decks, refinishing basements and remodeling interiors. "I love aviation. I miss it terribly," Downey, 40, said. "But there's a huge price to pay to be a pilot." Thursday's decision by Delta Air Lines pilots to accept a 32.5 percent pay cut because the carrier is in dire financial straits is the latest example of turmoil in an industry and a profession. Delta's 7,000 pilots were the highest-paid in the industry, with salaries between $50,000 and nearly $288,000 a year, according to the Air Line Pilots Association, their union. "It's been stressful, but I'm doing what I always wanted to do," said Keith Rosenkranz, who has been a Delta pilot for 14 years and flies out of Dallas-Fort Worth. He remembers staring out his window in high school to watch planes take off from the Los Angeles airport. Then 15 years later, he looked through a cockpit window at his old high school. "That's when I knew I made it," said Rosenkranz, 45. "I'm being paid to fly planes." So even with the most recent pay cut, Rosenkranz, who spent almost nine years in the Air Force and time in the first Gulf War, is loyal to his company. More than 2,000 pilots are below him on the seniority list, so the likelihood of being furloughed is negligible. But his salary will drop from $190,000 to about $128,000. And he knows his pension will be about half of what it would be if he were 60 and retiring now. "I've always lived within my means, so I can continue to live the same lifestyle I have," he said. "I may not have as much money as I would like to invest, but if I were to live day to day I'd be just fine." Pilots at the major airlines have been buffeted in recent years by waves of layoffs, court-enforced pay cuts and a prospect of evaporated pensions. More and more pilots are forced to decide whether to stick it out or move into a new career. For many, that decision depends on their age, seniority and how long they're willing to live in professional limbo. "There is still quite a bit of hiring, but mostly at smaller airlines," said Kit Darby, a United pilot who also runs a career information company for pilots. "That was work they did building up their careers. ... They don't want to go back." So when United Parcel Service Inc. announced recently that it will hire at least 100 pilots, it received many applications from military and corporate pilots who see cargo as a stable job, according to Kerry McCallum, human resource manager for the flight operations group. It didn't get many from passenger pilots. Average UPS pilot pay is $172,000, similar to pay at passenger airlines. A first-year pilot, however, earns a $27,000 annual salary, no matter what level of experience. Pay goes up to $58,000 the next year and more thereafter. That climb is what most pilots who have already made it in the majors hope to avoid. Darby's company, AIR Inc., estimates that about 8,700 pilots at the 14 major carriers, about 10 percent of the total, are on furlough. The airline industry has seen similar rounds of layoffs in the past but never for so long, he said. This time, though, the Sept. 11 attacks, severe acute respiratory syndrome, high fuel costs, and war have combined to dash any hopes for a quick return to the cockpit. There are still jobs out there, said Dave Esser, professor and associate chair of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Low-cost and regional airlines are pulling through this treacherous time relatively unscathed, he said, and those airlines fly shorter routes more often, so they will need more pilots. That points to a different future for his students. "They probably won't be looking at making captain in a 747 and making $250,000 a year," Esser said. United and Delta were recruiting recently at Embry-Riddle's Daytona, Fla., campus, but the positions were for analysts, not pilots. The students who want to fly are more likely to find jobs as flight instructors or as pilots with smaller regional airlines upon graduation, Esser said. "Most of the people who start this degree do it because flying is their passion. ... But it's been a pretty low, depressing time because students see future employers teetering on bankruptcy." Attached Photo: "I love aviation. I miss it terribly," former United Airlines pilot Patrick Downey said. "But there's a huge price to pay to be a pilot." Downey now does construction work.