Laid-off airline workers face turbulent job market

Skills of employees, especially pilots, seen as too specialized

September 28, 2001|By Kristine Henry | Kristine Henry,SUN STAFF

When US Airways Group Inc. lays off 11,000 employees in the coming weeks, the out-of-work pilots, flight attendants and mechanics will be cast into a job market suffering from a slowing economy.

Compounding the problem, especially for pilots, is that not only are most of the other airlines having similar difficulties, but the workers' skills are so specialized that it will be hard for them to find other jobs for which they are qualified.

"There will be thousands of pilots trying to start new careers over this," said Roy Freundlich, a pilot and spokesman for the US Airways unit of the Air Line Pilots Association. "It's devastating to these families."

Freundlich said he thinks US Airways is simply using the attacks in New York and Washington as an opportunity to restructure the company and make it an attractive acquisition target after its merger with United parent UAL Corp. fell through.

Calls to US Airways, based in Arlington, Va., were not returned yesterday.

Most of the 1,350 US Airways pilots to be laid off - including 500 in Baltimore - will get a month or two of severance pay, Freundlich said, and health care benefits will stop when the severance package ends.

About 300 of the pilots - those in their 14th year of service with the airline - were covered by a no-layoff clause. But another clause in the contract, called a force majeure, allows the layoffs under circumstances beyond the airline's control, such as an act of war.

Mechanics might have an easier time in the job market because their skills tend be more transferable, experts say. They are often trained in areas such as metal work, avionics and electronics.

"I don't think the prospects for anybody are particularly wonderful at this point," said Frank Larkin, a spokesman for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. "The recession is hardly limited to the airline industry. Manufacturing is also in recession."

According to the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas of Chicago, more than 1.2 million jobs disappeared during the first eight months of the year, compared with 613,960 jobs for all of last year.

"Those [mechanics'] positions would be available in a manufacturing environment, or if they weren't, they would be in the high-tech area, and that sector is also suffering," Larkin said.

John Challenger, chief executive of the firm, said flight attendants are most likely to find success in getting new jobs.

"Their skills are more transferable to many industries, whether it's sales and customer service ... or almost every environment that involves dealing with people," he said.

The August national unemployment rate of 4.9 percent was up from the 4.1 percent reported a year earlier, Challenger said, adding: "On the bright side, 4.9 percent is a very low rate of unemployment, and many sectors are growing. The defense sector is going to grow - military, security industries, they're going to hire a lot of people."

Challenger, along with airline consultants, said pilots could find work as flight instructors or pilots at smaller carriers, which could become more popular if customers shun major airlines because of safety concerns.

Freundlich discounted those alternatives.

"We're going to all go teach who? Flight schools are going to be out of business," he said. "Smaller carriers don't pay very well, and there's not that kind of market for charters. ... These are highly skilled professional men who are responsible and dedicated but whose skills won't transfer out."

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