Grounded by Layoffs, Staying There by Choice

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 13, 2006

John Lonneman vividly recalls the day six years ago when he was offered a job as a pilot for United Airlines.

"I felt like I was on top of the world," said Lonneman, who had dreamed of being at the controls of a jetliner since he was a boy.

Then, a few months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Lonneman was laid off-- joining thousands of pilots cast aside in the economic turmoil that struck the nation's airline industry.

Now, airlines are starting to call pilots back to work. But Lonneman isn't rushing to return. His love of flying has collided with tough realities. Most of the legacy carriers, the airlines that dominated the industry before the era of budget carriers, are struggling to make a profit or emerge from bankruptcy protection. Pilots are working longer hours and taking steep salary cuts to help keep their airlines afloat. Some are away from home for 22 days a month, up from the 15 or 16 of a few years ago.

In the four years since Lonneman was furloughed, he went back to school and started a family. He got a nursing degree and took a job at a hospital in Colorado. He said he would pass -- for now -- on United's offer to get back into the cockpit.

"I wanted to diversify my skills instead of getting back into an industry filled with uncertainty," he said, adding that he could see himself returning to a financially healthy airline in a couple of years. "Having other options is the key to surviving a career in the airline industry."

Airlines seeking to bring back some of the estimated 8,000 furloughed pilots are finding that many have concerns similar to those voiced by Lonneman. United has had to offer recalls to three to five pilots to get one to accept admission into a training class, union and airline officials say. Delta Air Lines, which announced a recall last month of 60 to 70 furloughed pilots, would not disclose the ratio of offers to acceptances. Delta pilots and union officials say the ratio is three offers for every acceptance.

American Airlines, US Airways and Northwest Airlines also have pilots on furlough. They have not mentioned immediate plans to begin recalling any. Analysts predict that those airlines will have to begin rehiring in the next year or so to meet growing passenger demand and replace retiring pilots.

Union and airline officials say they are not surprised by the pilots' hesitance to return. In fact, union groups and employment consultants are urging pilots to resist the offers -- for now.

"Pilots watch the news, too," said Duane E. Woerth, president of the Air Line Pilots Association. "Every single time there is some international incident, oil jumps five bucks a barrel. The pilot thinks: 'I just relocated my family once, and I'm going to have to relocate them again, and some unknown event will happen. Some airline will panic and furlough me again.' They just don't want to get caught in that whipsaw."

Almost everything in the pilot world is based on seniority. The best routes, planes and schedules go to pilots who have been with an airline the longest. Under union rules, recalls are offered first to pilots who have been with the airline the longest.

Pilots generally can bypass being recalled one time. By declining the recall, they get more time to evaluate how their airline is doing and allow less senior pilots to be hired instead. Junior pilots are more vulnerable to future layoffs and will be assigned less desirable schedules and routes. When the more senior pilots return, they leapfrog ahead of the junior aviators.

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