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How Clipped Wings Ground Airline Pros

Posted on 22 May 2009

Flight attendants often complain they get little respect in the air. Now some furloughed flight attendants are finding little respect on the ground, too.

Thousands of airline workers, laid off in the post-terrorism travel plunge, are having a difficult time finding work. Most of the blame falls on the weak economy and trepidation among prospective employers that they’ll return to old jobs when travel picks up. But many furloughed airline workers say they’ve had a tough time largely because their skills are hard to transplant to other industries, or just aren’t appreciated.

Elvis Williams quit his job as an orthopedic surgical assistant in Nashville at age 30 and moved to Dallas for a new career as an American Airlines flight attendant, only to be furloughed after four months. Despite his training in emergency first aid, crowd control and customer service, he’s only had interviews for telemarketing or clerical jobs since losing his job on Sept. 28.

“They act like a flight attendant isn’t even a real job,” he says, adding that interviewers skimmed right past his job at American on his resume to his former job. “It’s kind of like a slap in the face because we worked so hard to become flight attendants.”

Airline workers say they’ve encountered a misperception among prospective employers that many airline jobs are a breeze because of their on-again off-again work schedules. And many complain their skills are undervalued by companies that see them fit only for low-level customer service jobs that pay much less than their airline jobs.

“It’s sort of demeaning in a way because I don’t really think that employers see what type of skills flight attendants have,” says Leigh Houk, 37, a college-educated flight attendant in Pittsburgh furloughed from US Airways Group. “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, they’re just waitresses in the sky.’”

Unlike some others, Ms. Houk has some cushion. She’s married and receives health benefits through her husband’s job, allowing her more time find work she really enjoys. Currently drawing unemployment, she’d like to find something that uses her degree in marketing, but is considering returning to school for a teaching certificate.

Job counselors say airline employees often sell themselves short in thinking their skills are unique only to aviation. “All of them have skills that they probably haven’t thought about in terms of being able to resolve conflict, multitask,” says Leslie Bonner, president and founder of JobHouse, a Pittsburgh career-transition and outplacement company that’s working with former US Airways employees.

Dave Obusek, 48, has found it difficult to translate his job skills into other industries. A 20-year veteran with US Airways, Mr. Obusek helped coordinate charter flights for professional sports teams and other groups until he was furloughed Sept. 28.

Mr. Obusek, who has a wife and two teenage children, has sent out many résumés but hasn’t heard back. Now the family’s sole breadwinner is working part-time at the local Kmart auto shop, a job he says may end after the busy holiday season. Most entry-level jobs he’s known of pay $7 to $8 an hour, or less than $17,000 annually, which pales in comparison with his previous salary in the $50,000 range. His health insurance from the airline expired at the end of the year, and unless he gets a new job with benefits, he’ll have to start paying $500 to $700 a month out of pocket for premiums which will eat up half his unemployment check.

“You don’t even realize how depressed you are until you sit down with somebody and start talking about it,” he said.

There is some good news. Some furloughed workers have been offered new security jobs within their airlines. The former TWA, now owned by AMR Corp.’s American, had enough new part-time security screener positions in St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo., for all furloughed ticket and gate agents in those cities, said spokeswoman Julia Bishop. And about 50 of America West Airlines’ 250 furloughed flight attendants have been moved into government-mandated gate security jobs, said William Lehman, vice president of the airline’s flight-attendants union.

Mr. Lehman said a job fair helped one flight attendant get a customer-service position at a bank starting at $16,500 a year, more than he had been making as a first-year flight attendant. Many others have gotten jobs at department stores, he said.

Some employers are actively targeting former airline employees for jobs. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice attended a job fair at Continental Airlines in Houston looking for 3,500 prison guards and other correctional positions.

“We had a lot of people that were interested,” though the pay often didn’t measure up, said Hugh Robb, a human-resources recruiter for the Texas prison system.

In Pittsburgh, vacancies in health-care jobs, including nursing, prompted the Hospital Council of Western Pennsylvania to hold a job fair targeting former airline employees. “Right out of the gate, you have folks that are used to operating in that 24-hour environment,” says Linda Allen, senior director of human resources for the Council.

Gregg Hartzell, who was furloughed Sept. 26 from US Air’s aircraft-parts purchasing department, started a new customer-service job Nov. 15 for a cellular company in Pittsburgh. Mr. Hartzell, who’s 31 and single, found the job through an airline-sponsored job fair. He had to take a pay cut but said he’s pleased about the health benefits and growth opportunities. “Right now, with the way the economy is, I was just happy to land something,” he says.

Mr. Williams, the former American flight attendant, rewrote his résumé recently to highlight his duties and responsibilities as a flight attendant, including performing government-mandated safety checks. He’s thinking of applying for surgical-assistant positions at hospitals, but still dreams of going back to American, where he loved the travel and interaction with people.

“If they started calling people back, I would be the first in line to try to start flying again,” he says.

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1 Comments For This Post

  1. Chris says:

    Thanks for writing this article. I am a 20 year flight attendant that has been furloughed 3 times (all in the early-mid ’90′s). I experienced the same gross misperceptions of what my responsibilities and training were as a flight attendant, and it made it impossible to find work. Thanks for brining this to light!

    Tucson, AZ

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