Airlines get serious about hiring again

But qualified applicants are harder to find

After nearly six years of shrinking their workforces, most of the USA's biggest airlines are finally hiring again.

But the big carriers are finding that it's a different game than their last employment buildup during the travel boom ended in 2001. After years on the hiring sidelines, they're finding that, for some jobs in some locations, the ready pools of applicants they once enjoyed have dwindled.

The jobs they're offering have been devalued by deep cuts in pay and benefits during post-9/11 business reorganizations inside or outside bankruptcy court. And although airline jobs continue to carry the prized perk of free travel, fuller airliners are making it much harder for workers and their families to exercise the privilege.

The result: Airlines are making selective use of unorthodox tactics to make sure they have an adequate selection of qualified applicants from which to choose: open houses, signing bonuses and referral fees. US Airways even held a fishing-themed party to attract workers for its Philadelphia hub.

The increased efforts appear to be paying off. United says it's receiving up to 500 applications a day for flight attendants. Delta is receiving twice as many applicants as a year ago for baggage-handling and customer-service jobs at New York John F. Kennedy airport. The high degree of interest suggests that many workers still hold airline work in high regard despite the devaluation of industry jobs.

"It's a very gratifying position to have," says Sharon Rattery, 63, of Manhattan. Rattery, a former travel agency owner, commutes an hour each way to her $10-an-hour job at Delta Air Lines at New York John F. Kennedy. Delta hired her in April, and she's now part of a new team of "red coat" agents tasked primarily with helping high-end customers.

Aaron Ham, 32, of Philadelphia, in June joined US Airways as a ramp agent -- which involves loading and unloading bags on aircraft -- after hearing about the job from two friends who work there. He'd attended trade school to learn automotive mechanic skills but spent most of his working life as a cook and a Goodyear tire salesman. Today, he's making more money than at the tire shop and sees more room for advancement.

"I plan on being here for the long haul," Ham says.

The downsides don't bother Ham. He usually works 24 hours of overtime each week to augment his $10-an-hour pay. He says he has the time because he's single without kids. He also has difficulty getting the weekends off.

Growing payrolls

U.S. employers in August, on a net basis, unexpectedly shed 4,000 jobs, the first monthly drop in four years. But at this point, the airlines, which are growing again to meet rising travel demand, don't seem to be affected.

The latest government figures show that the six big traditional airlines that account for two-thirds of the industry's workers -- American, United, Delta, Continental, Northwest and US Airways -- employed 259,000 workers in June, or 1.3% more than a year earlier.

That's the second consecutive month their full-time payrolls have grown after a period of 68 consecutive months of decline, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Over the June-to-June period, Continental, Delta and US Airways reflected growth in their employment. American, United and Northwest showed a decline. But since June, some have stepped up hiring.

Northwest said it's hiring about 250 pilots this year to avoid canceling more flights because of pilot shortages. United is hiring 100 pilots to expand flying. On Wednesday, US Airways said it will add 350 pilots. American is mainly hiring for some airport jobs. It still has thousands of furloughed pilots and flight attendants, says spokesman Tim Wagner.

During the pre-9/11 travel boom, drawing ample recruits to airline jobs required little more than placing a simple classified ad, and maybe not even that.

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