In the days when United Airlines was flying high, Patrick Downey exulted in being paid to live his passion. When the former Navy pilot went to work for United in 1999, he felt he landed his dream job, one that would provide a comfortable salary to make a happy life in McLean with his wife and two daughters.
But in a round of cuts, Downey first took a 30 percent hit in his paycheck and then, last November, he was furloughed.
Today the 40-year-old pilot has a new life. He runs a small contracting firm with another pilot, building decks, refinishing basements and remodeling interiors.
"I love aviation. I miss it terribly," Downey said in a recent interview. "But there's a huge price to pay to be a pilot."
Yesterday's decision by Delta Air Lines pilots to accept a 32.5 percent pay cut because the carrier is in dire financial straits is the latest example of turmoil in an industry and a profession.
"It's been stressful, but I'm doing what I always wanted to do," said Keith Rosenkranz, who has been a Delta pilot for 14 years and flies out of Dallas-Fort Worth.
He remembers staring out his window in high school to watch planes take off from the Los Angeles airport. Then 15 years later, he looked through a cockpit window at his old high school.
"That's when I knew I made it," said Rosenkranz, 45. "I'm being paid to fly planes."
So even with the most recent pay cut, Rosenkranz, who spent almost nine years in the Air Force and time in the first Gulf War, is loyal to his company. More than 2,000 pilots are below him on the seniority list, so his chance of being furloughed is negligible. But his salary will drop from $190,000 to about $128,000. And he knows his pension will be about half of what it would be if he were 60 and retiring now.
"I've always lived within my means, so I can continue to live the same lifestyle I have," he said. "I may not have as much money as I would like to invest, but if I were to live day to day I'd be just fine."
Pilots at the major airlines have been buffeted in recent years by waves of layoffs, court-enforced pay cuts and a prospect of evaporated pensions. More and more pilots are forced to decide whether to stick it out or move into a new career. For many, that decision depends on their age, seniority and how long they are willing to live in professional limbo.
Unlike workers in most industries, pilots cannot hop from one company to another easily, because they lose seniority if they are rehired at a different airline. Union rules make it very difficult for pilots to start a new job at the same salary. A new job at a regional airline or cargo carrier would mean a salary in the $20,000 range and a drop in prestige.
"There is still quite a bit of hiring, but mostly at smaller airlines," said Kit Darby, a United pilot who also runs a career information company for pilots. "So when you talk about someone at a larger airline going back, they're not real keen on that. That was work they did building up their careers. They have been there, done that, got the T-shirt. They don't want to go back."
So when United Parcel Service Inc. announced recently that it will hire at least 100 pilots by the end of next year to fly cargo, it received many applications from military and corporate pilots who see cargo as a stable job, according to Kerry McCallum, human resource manager for the flight operations group. It did not receive an influx of resumes from passenger pilots, she added.
Average UPS pilot pay is $172,000, similar to pay at passenger airlines. A first-year pilot, however, earns a $27,000 annual salary, no matter what level of experience. Pay goes up to $58,000 the next year and more thereafter. That climb is what most pilots who have already made it in the majors hope to avoid.
Darby brings a unique perspective to the debate, as a veteran pilot just 21/2 years from the required retirement age of 60 and the founder of AIR Inc. By his company's figures, about 8,700 pilots at the 14 major carriers, about 10 percent of the total, are on furlough.
American has 2,581 grounded pilots, the most in the industry. US Airways Group Inc. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Sept. 12 -- its second in as many years -- and pilots agreed to an 18 percent cut in pay, after a bankruptcy judge ordered an even deeper cut.
United's parent, UAL Corp., has been in bankruptcy protection since December 2002. It is expected to cut more jobs, eliminate traditional pensions and seek more concessions from its employees. It had more than 9,000 pilots at the end of 1997; the figure was down to 6,900 at the end of last year.
The airline industry has seen similar rounds of layoffs in the past but never for so long, Darby said. This time, though, it was like falling dominoes: the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; severe acute respiratory syndrome; high fuel costs; war. Hopes for a quick return to the cockpit have disappeared.
Darby said he decided to stay at United because he can. "Right now, I'm busy trying to make lemonade out of lemons," he said. A pilot at United since 1985, he has seen his pay drop 30 percent, from $220,000 to $160,000. His expected pension dropped about 40 percent, to $48,000 a year. But he stayed in the military long enough to receive a pension. Where he once looked on that pay as "another loaf of bread," now "it's looking a lot like a house payment."
Darby acknowledges he still pulls in a healthy salary, but the cut means he had to refinance his house and sell his prized BMW, which he bought for himself when he made captain.
"Personally, I still enjoy my job. I like flying, I like the environment. It's hard to see all these things chipping away," he said. "But . . . I'm willing to make any compromise to help it survive."
Although chances for a career as a commercial airline pilot may seem bleak, there are still jobs out there, said Dave Esser, professor and associate chair of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Low-cost and regional airlines are pulling through this treacherous time relatively unscathed, he said, and those airlines fly shorter routes more often, so they will need more pilots. That points to a different kind of future for his students.
"They probably won't be looking at making captain in a 747 and making $250,000 a year," Esser said. But they will be making good wages, "comparable with other professionals."
United and Delta were recruiting at Embry-Riddle's Daytona campus on a recent Friday. That sounded promising to many students, until they found the positions were for analysts, not pilots.
The students who want to fly will likely find jobs as flight instructors or as pilots with smaller regional airlines upon graduation, Esser said.
"Most of the people who start this degree do it because flying is their passion," Esser said. "They have a faith in the industry and that it will perk back up. But it's been a pretty low, depressing time because students see future employers teetering on bankruptcy."
If Downey were to return to United now, he would return to a $70,000 salary, and he might have to commute to San Francisco, away from his family 18 days a month. When he was furloughed, he was flying between New York, Washington and Chicago.
If he were called back -- not a likely possibility right now since there are hundreds of pilots ahead of him in line -- Downey is not sure what he would do. "I would still go back as the junior-most pilot at UAL, flying the lowest planes with worst schedule," he said.
"No one understands. The public says it's such a glamorous life, aren't you lucky," Downey said. "After devoting a major amount of my adult life to aviation, I don't feel so lucky anymore."