Airline pilots brace for downsizing, career change

2/07/2008 - 21:17

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.


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."


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."

(Editing by Patrick Fitzgibbons and Braden Reddall)

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