A down-to-earth job outlook for airline workers

With the industry undergoing a historic realignment, those laid off don't expect to be rehired and are taking other jobs.

Call it the after-airline life. For many of the nation's pilots, flight attendants, and mechanics whose love of the open skies defined their work lives for decades, it's something they never wanted to imagine.

But with the aviation industry in the midst of a historic economic realignment, once-glamorous aviation jobs that included flexible schedules and free tickets - to say nothing of the high pay - are disappearing, and this time probably for good.

Pilots and flight attendants who gloried in flying with the sunset are suddenly finding themselves roasting coffee, selling planes, and going back to school.

This year, more than 44,000 employees have already been laid off in the aviation industry. If the rate continues, it's on track to be the worst year since 2001, when more than 100,000 employees found themselves furloughed.

But even if no more pilots or flight attendants are laid off, 2005 may be the nadir for many anyway. That's because this time, the economic shakeout is different.

"This one is serious. This one is going to cause permanent job loss," says Alexander Sierra, a pilot with one of the major airlines who founded De La Sierra Coffee Roasters in Miami as a fallback if his pink slip arrives. "Flying is great. We love doing it, but we have families to support. We have to make a living."

Layoffs have been fairly common in the aviation industry since deregulation in 1978. That's because the big airlines have operated in tumultuous "boom and bust" cycles. When a recession hit, pilots and flight attendants may have ended up unemployed, but they knew that when the economy rebounded, so too would their airlines and they'd be recalled.

But now, as the major airlines find themselves facing searing competition from low-cost carriers like JetBlue and Southwest, and as fuel prices hover at historically high levels, efficiency and increased productivity are the new bywords. The majors - four out of six of which are now in bankruptcy - are faced with doing more with less if they're going to survive.

For some workers, that means getting accustomed to more hours for less pay - and losing their pensions and retirement healthcare benefits. For others, it means taking off their pilots' hats for good and finding a new way to make a living.

"That's because it's the industry that's having problems. It's not an individual airline ... and therefore the jobs may be going away permanently," says Bill Coleman, senior vice president of compensation at Salary.com in Needham, Mass., which researches industry pay practices.

That would bring wrenching change to any employee. But flight attendants and pilots say it's particularly tough in the airline industry, where people work as teams to ensure safety, which develops a camaraderie and a fierce loyalty to their carriers. That loyalty often remains, despite frustration with management, anger at givebacks, and even permanent job loss, as in the case of Pan Am, which liquidated in the early 1990s.

"We have many members who are ex-Pan Am flight attendants, who to this day miss that carrier and what it meant to them," says Ellie Larson, a United Airlines flight attendant who's on leave working full time for the Association of Flight Attendants in Washington. "Airline employees in general really love their airlines. They have an affection for them and a bond for them that goes beyond any other events that take place throughout their careers."

But for some employees, the anger over the way some airline managers are handling this economic transition has finally outweighed that loyalty.

Susan Smith, a Northwest flight attendant who asked that her real name not be used for fear of being fired, is a case in point. She's about to take a voluntary furlough because she knows, with her lack of seniority, she'll be permanently laid off in January.

"You just start to feel that the company doesn't care. You're there for their benefit: You work the holiday because they need you, and then they lay you off without even a 'thank you.' "

If Ms. Smith waits until January to be laid off, she'll receive no benefits from the airline, just unemployment compensation. But with the voluntary furlough, she'll at least get one year of free flying passes. She says she's fortunate because her husband works, so she can afford to take time to go back to school and figure out what she wants to do next. But because she loved flying and the flexibility it gave her, she's having a hard time figuring out exactly what that will be.

For some employees, like mechanics and mid-level managers, the transition may be easier because they have transferable skills. Ray Gardner, who used to work for American Airlines, is now working for a private airline maintenance company in California.

"Pretty much everyone I know has managed to find something maintenance-wise in the industry," he says. But he notes that people may not be making as much money as when they worked at the major carriers.

While such industrywide upheaval is difficult for employees, the changes are also part of a market economy that "focuses on innovation and change to keep it young and healthy," say economists like John Challenger.

"Economies that don't remain flexible get solidified and end up declining," says Mr. Challenger, a partner at Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement firm in Chicago. "Part of what keeps an economy young in a changing environment are entrepreneurs that create new companies that do things better."

But he adds, "a crucial question" for the country is how to deal with some of the biggest companies of the late 20th century - like the airline and auto industries - that made generous pension and healthcare promises to their workers a decade ago and now find it difficult to compete.

"Those promises were made in good faith to those people," says Challenger. "But those same promises for pensions and healthcare create costs that their more nimble competitors aren't facing. Do we just let these companies and the jobs disappear, or do we help them adapt and become more competitive?"

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