As a boy growing up in Northern Virginia, Aaron Bocknek, now 42, had only one goal: He wanted to work in the airline industry. He spent Sunday afternoons with his father, watching jets take off and land at National Airport. He received his first subscription to Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine as a birthday gift when he turned 7.
Bocknek landed that dream job and worked as a flight attendant for 17 years, most recently for US Airways. But US Airways went into bankruptcy in August, crippled by heavy operating costs and the post-9/11 industry slowdown. Bocknek, who now lives in Parkville, Md., lost his job in January. He works at Target, where he earns $7.35 an hour, compared with $27 per flight hour when he worked for US Airways. He misses his old job -- not just the paycheck but also the glamour he associated with the industry.
"Jet fuel gets in your blood," Bocknek said. "Not a day goes by that I don't cry about the career that's been taken away from me, for no fault of my own."
More than 115,000 airline workers have lost their jobs in the past two years, and more cutbacks are looming, according to industry experts citing airline consolidation and work-rule changes. Now, like Bocknek, other airline workers are coming to grips not only with a dismal job climate but also with the reality that they may never work again in the industry they love.
Roger Drinjak, a retired machinist with TWA, works as a recruitment specialist for IAM Cares, an employee-assistance arm of the International Association of Machinists union. Of the 350 laid-off machinists he has counseled in the New York City area, not one has found a job with comparable pay and benefits, he said.
"It's been bleak, and it is bleak," said Drinjak, who joined the machinists' job-search arm in July when he retired from TWA after 25 years. "Nobody is hiring. I've never seen it like this."
Drinjak said that in past industry downturns, many machinists were able to move into jobs as mechanics elsewhere. This time, he said, they are finding that wages in the field average about $12 an hour and health benefits are limited or nonexistent. He said many workers he advises are reluctant to accept positions on those terms. Instead, they remain jobless, waiting fruitlessly for the mail to hold a certified letter that will tell them they have been recalled to work.
"It's a bitter pill," he said.
John Mazor, a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association, which has lost 7,800 members to layoffs from the 66,000 the industry employed on Sept. 11, 2001, said many displaced pilots are similarly waiting and hoping for a callback. Others, he said, are painting houses, selling real estate, working retail jobs or back in school. Some, he said, have applied for jobs at foreign airlines, but many foreign carriers are cutting back, too. Other pilots are transporting packages or are looking for jobs flying corporate jets.
"This is arguably the worst set of circumstances the industry has faced since the 1980s," he said. "People are having to reinvent themselves."
The federal government can provide training assistance, said Emily Stover DeRocco, assistant secretary for training and employment at the Department of Labor. Retraining funds are available through the national network of 1,900 one-stop career centers. She said many jobs are available in information technology, health care and financial services. The Labor Department has also forged new links with some employers, including Home Depot, Swift Transportation and Manpower, to help workers find jobs.
"It's not an easy process, but there are industries that continue to need workers," she said.
In the past, workers who were dislocated because industries had radically changed found that they could find jobs at comparable wages by retraining and looking for work elsewhere, she said. Airline workers should be able to do the same, said DeRocco.
"They should not be discouraged," she said. "It's a difficult process, but there's help, resources and support."
Nicky Lane of Cheverly is an aviation worker who has made the leap successfully. Lane was a flight-attendant trainer at US Airways for 18 years, but she lost her job Sept. 26, 2001, in the first big round of job cuts after the terrorist attacks. Lane, 44, went to work for the D.C. Department of Employment Services, at roughly the same annual pay, helping other displaced workers find jobs. Last week, she was promoted to a job as account executive, where she will recruit employers to hire jobless workers in the District.
"There's another world out there," she said, adding that airline workers have skills that easily transfer to other fields, particularly the hospitality industry. "You can survive, you can survive."
Her life is more satisfying now, she said.
"It was a wonderful career, but I feel this is where I fit," she said. "I'm helping people who went through what I've been through. Who better to help them? This is more fulfilling to me. I'm making a difference."