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Lofty Expectations, Missed Opportunities

Olivia Durica, 3, waits for her father, Peter, an Independence Air pilot, at Dulles. Independence is shutting down Thursday.
Olivia Durica, 3, waits for her father, Peter, an Independence Air pilot, at Dulles. Independence is shutting down Thursday. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 3, 2006

At the Independence Air check-in line at Dulles International Airport yesterday, passengers were accounting for their losses in the shutdown of the 18-month-old airline -- the cheap tickets, the friendly service, the convenience of flying through Dulles instead of Baltimore-Washington International. Standing beside them was Peter Durica, a pilot at Independence Air who is losing his job.

Durica and his family were returning to their home near Chicago's Midway International Airport after visiting relatives in Northern Virginia. Since the airline's parent company, Flyi Inc., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in November, he has been looking for a job. He's putting in applications, he said, and waiting to hear back. The airline will cease operations Thursday.

Durica and other employees learned of the airline's decision to shut down through the company's public announcement yesterday. In a recorded telephone message to employees, Kerry B. Skeen, Independence Air's chief executive, thanked the 2,700 workers. He noted that the airline ranked high in customer satisfaction and brand strength.

"Why did our brand succeed in customer satisfaction? It really falls on your shoulders; you did a great job," Skeen said. "The thrust of my message today is: Hold your heads up high, as difficult as that might be."

In the call, Skeen acknowledged that the industry environment was "horrible," with major airlines operating under bankruptcy protection or "on the threshold of bankruptcy." That may make the Independence workers' job hunt especially difficult.

Darryl Jenkins, an airline consultant based in Virginia, said he didn't think the workers had much of a chance to find another airline job in the Washington area.

Last year, airline industry employment in the United States fell to 442,000, down 6 percent from the previous year. At the height of airline employment, in 2001, the industry employed 680,000 workers. "It's down a couple of hundred thousand. It's not a good hiring environment," Jenkins said. Most of the workers would have to seek work for companies in different industries where their skills cross over, he said.

Steve MacFarlane, national director for the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, which represents Independence mechanics, cleaners and custodians, said the union has seen its national membership drop from 21,000 in 2001 to 18,000 now.

MacFarlane said the union and Independence Air had been trying unsuccessfully to negotiate a new contract for three years. He said airlines have been moving to lower-cost, non-union third-party vendors for some of their maintenance, pushing jobs into Mexico. "A lot of this is because the flying public insists on flying from New York to Los Angeles for 199 bucks," he said. "They have to understand that some of it comes with a price."

About 1,300 Independence workers are unionized, including mechanics, flight attendants and about 600 pilots. A spokesman for the airline said Independence is requesting approval in bankruptcy court to offer employees a package of benefits after the airline shuts down. He didn't give any other details.

At Dulles yesterday, workers behind the Independence counters handled holiday traffic plus extra questions from travelers about what was happening at the airline. And when speaking to a reporter, a worker who insisted on anonymity replied dryly when asked how she felt about the loss of her job. "What do you think I'm thinking?" she shot back before calling over the next person in line. Another woman at the counter, who said she just bought a new house, said, "Obviously, we are going to be looking for another job."

Jenkins said pilots at Independence will have the most difficult time because they can't easily move into other fields of work. "A pilot is a pilot," he said.

Durica, 40, said he was disappointed that low-fare Independence Air did not survive. "If it costs $100 to operate a seat and you charge $50, it's a problem," Durica said. "It's a problem for the whole industry. It's not just us."

Durica said he is trying to get a job at Southwest Airlines. He has heard that as many as 500 pilots might be added there this year. He said he likes Southwest because the airline is expanding.

"I'm sad about the fact that we're shutting down," Durica said. "I think people loved flying on us. It's a disappointment for the whole area. I guarantee you ticket prices are going up because we're not going to be here."

Staff writer Bill Brubaker contributed to this report.

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