Laid-off pilots stay away

U.S. airlines furloughed thousands of pilots but now face a severe shortage

February 13, 2007|By Julie Johnsson | Julie Johnsson,Chicago Tribune

For the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, all major U.S. airlines are hiring pilots or recalling those laid off during the industry's five-year downturn.

But the airlines are discovering that many of the 10,000 pilots who lost their jobs during those bleak years aren't interested in returning to their old lives.

Many pilots, faced with salary cuts of 35 percent or more, moved to overseas carriers such as Emirates Airline and Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. Others took higher-paying jobs with overnight carriers such as FedEx Corp. and United Parcel Service Inc.

Joe Marquardt, 50, left a 17-year career at Northwest Airlines last year for Emirates, as the Minnesota-based carrier phased out the DC-9 jets he flew. He had already lost a third of his salary in pay cuts and faced a demotion to a smaller plane, which would mean another pay reduction.

"It got to the point where we couldn't keep the house," Marquardt said.

Now, Marquardt enjoys a life of golf and beachcombing in Dubai, as well as the free housing provided by Emirates, which employs him as a Boeing 777 captain. "It's hard to match that back home," Marquardt said.

After slashing pilot jobs and pay to survive the last downturn, old-line carriers may find it tougher to hire pilots to keep pace with the industry's rebound, experts say. In fact, they appear to be facing a shortage in the decade ahead.

The trend is a byproduct of the loss of financial security and prestige suffered by the airlines who've long dominated U.S. travel, increased recruiting of American pilots by foreign carriers and the global boom in commercial aviation and airliner sales.

"It is a wild and crazy time, and it's really just begun," said Kit Darby, an expert on pilot job trends and pay. He is president of Atlanta's AIR Inc., a resource center for pilots.

About one-third of the world's airline pilots work in the United States, currently the largest market for air travel in the world. But U.S. pilots are becoming hot commodities for overseas carriers, who need large numbers of experienced pilots to fly the fleets of wide-body aircraft they have on order from Chicago's Boeing Co. and Europe's Airbus SAS.

Boeing predicts that the total number of aircraft used by airlines around the world will more than double by 2025, to 35,970. To keep pace, airlines will need to hire more than 210,000 pilots globally, more than double the number currently working, Darby estimates.

Moving the mandatory retirement age for pilots to 65 from 60, as proposed by the Federal Aviation Administration, will help a little. Darby estimates that relaxing retirement rules will reduce U.S. airlines' hiring by about 3,800 jobs during the next five years.

"That's only a drop in the bucket compared to the need," Darby said. "There are many, many airplanes coming and, with them, large increases in air service."

That's not including the competition for pilots that airlines will face from air taxi operators flying a new breed of jets that carry between three and five passengers.

Merrill Lynch & Co. estimates that 925 of these aircraft, known as "very light jets," will be delivered by 2010. That's up from the 21 jets that rolled out of factories in 2006. And all of these planes will need certified jet pilots.

Don Osmundson, vice president for flight operations at Florida-based DayJet Corp., says his company plans to hire about five pilots for each of the 239 Eclipse 500 jets it has on order.

Many pilots still aspire to fly large aircraft for major carriers such as United Airlines, which has about 6,500 pilots, down from more than 10,000 in 2001. Captains at these carriers still earn six figures and have jobs that let them see the world.

But such jobs are no longer considered aviation's plum posts: Pilots' hours are longer and their pay is lower .

In fact, United Airlines has offered jobs to all of the 2,172 pilots it furloughed, industry parlance for laid off, during the downturn. About 1,000 of them have returned, while others declined the initial job offers.

Now, United is moving through its list of furloughed pilots - whittled down to about 800 - for a second and final time as it plans to add 300 pilots this year.

"Guys have to make a decision whether they're coming back to United or not," said Steven Derebey, a Boeing 737 captain at United and spokesman for its pilots' union. "When they reach the end of that [list], they will have to start looking to the outside for new pilots."

FedEx and UPS, whose pilots were once derided as "cargo dogs," have long since displaced United Airlines, US Airways and Delta Air Lines at the top of the pay scale in the United States. The most senior pilots at the freight carriers earn about $40,000 more annually than their counterparts at the old-line carriers.

Foreign-flag carriers, who would not have contemplated luring pilots from the major U.S. airlines during the 1990s, are holding recruiting drives here.

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