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"Airline pilots brace for downsizing, career change"



Thursday, July 3, 2008

Airline pilots brace for downsizing, career change
By Kyle Peterson


CHICAGO (Reuters) - United Airlines pilot Todd Coomans has yet to fully
recover from a painful furlough five years ago that set his airline career
back several years and, along the way, also cost him his marriage.

Now the 46-year-old first officer, who returned to United just a year and a
half ago, is bracing for another layoff. And this time he thinks the
prospects are even worse.

"I can't believe I'm going through it again," said Coomans, who now may look
for work in China.

Coomans is convinced he will be among the 950 pilots that United, a unit of
UAL Corp, will eliminate as part of a downsizing effort that the No. 2 U.S.
carrier hopes will offset skyrocketing fuel prices.

"This is all I've done my adult life. I love flying," Coomans said. "I don't
know if I can do this up and down every few years."

The last time he was furloughed, he found work at an air charter company.
But the sudden job loss put such a strain on his marriage that it ended in
divorce.

Coomans and his colleagues are not alone. While UAL, which plans to cut up
to 1,600 jobs, is the first big airline to detail the impact of cuts on
pilots, layoffs are planned at all major carriers as they try to offset
record-high fuel prices.

AMR Corp's American Airlines said in May staff cuts were coming, and said on
Wednesday it would shed 900 flight attendants. Continental Airlines Inc
plans to cut 3,000 jobs and US Airways Group Inc plans 1,700 cuts.

Delta Air Lines Inc, which plans to merge with Northwest Airlines, said
earlier this year it would eliminate 2,000 jobs. Northwest also expects job
cuts.

Downsizing may be the last hope for airlines to avoid potential devastation
as fuel costs threaten to negate the progress they made during years of
restructuring.

Fuel costs -- linked to record-high oil prices -- have more than offset a
series of fare hikes that led to profits in 2006 and 2007 after five years
of losses. The Air Transport Association sees a $10 billion loss for
airlines this year.

WHERE TO GO?

Clearly, it's as gloomy a time as anyone who works at a major U.S. airline
can remember.

Thousands of workers -- from management down to baggage handlers -- face
imminent job cuts and a terrible job market. Many airline employees will
have to switch careers.

But some employees, like pilots and flight attendants, are in a particularly
tight spot because their careers are so closely connected to seniority at a
single airline, which dictates pay, work rules, and routes they are assigned
to fly.

A further complication is that seniority does not transfer between airlines.
A United pilot who takes a job at American, for example, goes to the bottom
of American's seniority list.

If a furloughed pilot wants to keep flying for an airline, the options are
limited, especially in the United States.

Some airlines have arrangements with regional partners to give preference to
furloughed employees for open positions. Often, however, the pay is much
less for a regional pilot, and those jobs also are scarce.

Regional carriers flying 70-seat aircraft, such as Republic Airways Holdings
Inc, continue to see some growth.

Airline consultant Robert Mann noted hiring opportunities for pilots in the
Middle East and Asia. Many of those jobs, however, are contract positions,
meaning the job is not guaranteed once the contract ends.

Some pilots who are in the U.S. National Guard also may consider flying for
the military, Mann said.

"So, there are options for those who had the foresight to create options,"
he said. "I think it's a function of what foresight you've had to create a
safety net."

CASTING BLAME

Anger is simmering among pilots about the prospect for unemployment after
they and other work groups made steep sacrifices to help save their
companies in recent years.

Unlike the last downturn -- triggered in large part by the September 11,
2001, attacks -- this one could have been avoided, said United Capt. Jay
Heppner.

He's not buying management arguments that no one could have predicted oil
prices would rise to $140 a barrel. Airlines could have been better
prepared, he said.

"We're very angry that it's come to this," Heppner said.

Heppner, 54, who believes his job is safe for now, said simply ducking a
round of layoffs does not preserve a pilot's lifestyle.

For every large aircraft eliminated from the fleet, pilots who flew that
plane lose status that they worked hard to achieve. Senior pilots find
themselves flying smaller planes on less-desirable routes or large planes
with a lower rank.

"It just cascades," he said. "It ripples throughout the whole airline."

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