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"Airlines' financial woes throw pilot profession into a tailspin"

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.


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