For Jim Reilly, the sky's the limit

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Jim Reilly put himself through college by managing a McDonald's restaurant in the afternoons and stocking shelves at Macy's department store on weekends. With a business degree from Long Island University, Mr. Reilly started looking for a management training position. Four years later, he is serving beverages and pointing out emergency exits on a sleek DC-9.

''I don't know of a better job,'' says the mustachioed US Air flight attendant from Winthrop, Mass. ''The pay is so good you can make a career out of it.''

Reilly is one of a growing number of men slowly making inroads into the generally female bastion of US airlines. And the male influx is one of many signs that the bastion itself has evolved - from a glamorous image of the stewardess in the early '70s into a no-nonsense career of a flight attendant.

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''There are a lot more guys than there used to be,'' says Reilly, who on this hop from Indianapolis to Pittsburgh is working with two other flight attendants, one male, one female.

Although US Air had used some male flight attendants previously, it did not actively seek out men until about three years ago, after a suit was brought charging that the airline discriminated against men.

''We were forced to do it,'' says David Shipley, US Air assistant vice-president for public relations. ''But we saw the changing roles of men and women in society - and we kind of liked what we saw.''

Reactions from the passengers vary, Reilly says: ''A lot of people are surprised. . . . The businessmen get on in the morning and they want to see the pretty girls. But the ladies love us. . . .''

Overall, observers say, men now fill about 10 to 20 percent of the flight attendant positions on domestic airlines.

That is up from less than 5 percent in 1975, estimates Louis Smith, founder of the Future Airline Professionals of America. ''One reason is that more males are applying. [But] I think the main trend is that it's become more of a career.''

One specialty of Mr. Smith's Atlanta-based company is selling hiring information to prospective flight attendants - a valuable commodity when only about 5 out of every 300 people interviewed will be hired by a major airline. One reason the positions are so competitive is that flight attendants are holding onto their jobs longer. Where the average tenure used to be 18 months, Smith estimates, it is now eight or nine years. Airlines now provide benefits, and several government and court decisions have eliminated the policies of those airlines that kept out all but young, unmarried females.

Reilly agrees that pay and benefits are excellent. He readily ticks off his March ski trip to Austria and the other countries he's visited because of cut-rate travel privileges. He is less forthcoming about his salary, but says it roughly equals what his twin brother is making at Chase Manhattan Bank.

For flying a typical 75 hours a month, a starting flight attendant earns $10, 000 to $18,000 on the major airlines, according to the Association of Flight Attendants. After six years, the range jumps to $13,000 to $26,000, but flight attendants can easily increase that by working more hours.

Would he make a career of it? Probably not, says Reilly, who like many male flight attendants wants eventually to latch onto the airline's corporate ladder. But barring that, ''It gets to a point where the pay is so good'' that starting on the bottom rung with another company is no longer worth it.

Whether the airlines - now starting to hire flight attendants because of an expected surge in air travel - will continue to fill their ranks with men is debatable. While Smith expects that men eventually will hold 50 percent of the positions, others disagree.

''We are going to continue our practice of trying to get as many males as possible,'' says Mr. Shipley at US Air. ''But we don't expect the percentage to change much.''

Only the best applicants are picked, regardless of sex, says Larry Brooks, director of in-flight services of Piedmont Airlines. And since applications don't specifically make a distinction, Piedmont executives are sometimes puzzled over the sex of the person they've hired.

Earlier this year, employees had to search for Fredly Baum, a new recruit missing from the training class. ''We were looking for a guy,'' Mr. Brooks remembers - but Fredly turned out to be a woman.

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