Jean Russell, 54, was standing in front of an ice cream shop in Oakton this summer when she decided she just had to work for Dulles-based Independence Air.
There, in the parking lot, Russell said, she spotted three blue and white pickups, each with mock airplane tails sticking out of the back, promoting the new low-cost carrier.
"I thought: Any airline that has trucks that look like this on the road must be fun to work for," said Russell, who co-owns an Oakton beauty shop.
Russell went home and logged on to the employment section of the airline's Web site, flyi.com. And she reported to her new job as a customer service agent last week."Having already worked for 23 years in customer service -- in our beauty shop -- I felt this job would be a good fit for me," Russell said, taking a break from a training session the other day.
Russell joined more than 1,100 employees hired by Independence's parent company since reinventing itself this year as a low-cost airline. Almost 700 are working in Loudoun County, at Washington Dulles International Airport or at Independence's nearby headquarters.
The two-month-old airline isn't finished hiring, as it ramps up to offer 300 daily flights from its Dulles hub this fall.
"Baggage handlers, aircraft mechanics, dispatchers, customer service -- we are continuing to look for people who want to thrive in a fast-paced environment," said Angie Shermer, vice president of employee services for Flyi Inc., the airline's parent company. "Our biggest challenge is finding the right person for the right position."
Independence Air faces other challenges. Some Wall Street analysts question whether the airline can be profitable flying its 50-seat regional jets. Independence plans to roll out 132-seat planes for its long-haul routes this fall. But the airline will have to sell more tickets than it did in July, its first full month of operation, when more than half of its seats were empty, analysts say.
Independence doesn't need as many employees as other startups because, in many ways, it had a head start.
For 15 years, the company was known as Atlantic Coast Airlines Holdings Inc., and it operated regional feeder jets for United Airlines and Delta Air Lines. Atlantic Coast owned a fleet of jet and turboprop planes and supplied much of the workforce, including pilots, fight attendants and mechanics. United and Delta handled the reservations, marketing and customer service.
When Atlantic Coast decided last year to create a stand-alone airline, it already had about 4,000 employees, including 1,500 pilots. But some vital pieces were missing: employees to book reservations, for example, or handle customer complaints.
Independence launched a hiring campaign, using newspaper ads, job fairs and word of mouth, said Shermer, 39, who joined Atlantic Coast in 1989, the year it was founded.
At a job fair in Atlanta, a market Atlantic Coast didn't serve, more than 400 people applied for 40 positions, most in customer service, Shermer said. "We were blown away by the level of interest," she said. The entry-level pay for customer service jobs is $9.65 an hour.
In the Washington region, many people have applied for jobs on the company's Web site, sometimes after visiting the site to book a flight, Shermer said.
Much of the Web traffic, she said, has been driven by the airline's un-buttoned-down marketing and advertising campaigns, featuring spokesmen such as Republican political adviser Mary Matalin and rock-'n'-roller Chuck Berry.
"I saw one of the advertisements in the newspaper and was very intrigued. I thought, 'Oh, they might be fun to work for,' " said Eileen Smith, 38, of Bristow. "I also was happy that there was a new low-cost carrier at Dulles, right outside my door."
Smith said she took an Independence Air flight to Boston with her husband over the Fourth of July weekend and was ready to sign up for a job even before the plane took off.
She particularly liked the airline's quirky pre-flight announcements. In one, Matalin promises safety information for passengers on the right side of the plane. And her husband, Democratic consultant James Carville, promises the same information for the folks on the left.
"That announcement really grabbed my attention," Smith said. "It showed me that this is a company that's about having some fun while at the same time giving you a safe passage to your destination."
Smith began training as a customer service agent last week.
"Well, I'm not going to be a millionaire," she said. "But the flight benefits are great. My children can fly free, as well as my parents."
Shermer said she is hiring customer service agents with a range of airline experience. Smith and Russell are at one extreme: Neither had worked for an airline.
Smith has some marketing experience, though, having worked for an Atlanta radio station. And Russell sees customers every day in the beauty shop she co-owns with her husband.
"I guess the difference will be with the airline customer, I may not be able to fix their problem right away," Russell said. "I may have to go through channels if the customers want a refund or something.
"But with the beauty shop customer, I can usually fix their problem. I can say, 'Okay, come back tomorrow and we'll change your hair from orange to purple.' Both jobs are about customer service, though, making sure that the customer comes first."