Airlines get serious about hiring again

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.

But that was during a golden period for both airlines and employees, when union contracts seemed to lock in pay and benefits at record levels. Then, getting a job at US Airways, Delta or another traditional airline represented a lifelong career. But immediately after the 9/11 attacks, air travel nearly disappeared.

United, Delta, Northwest and US Airways sought bankruptcy reorganization. American and Continental avoided bankruptcy but cut deeply. Airlines cut wages and benefits and eliminated jobs.

By June 2005, the six airlines employed 275,900 workers, down 35% from four years earlier.

When airlines stopped most of their hiring, job seekers looked elsewhere, says Mike Medeiros, who runs Delta's operations at New York John F. Kennedy airport. That created a dearth of qualified candidates once hiring began to pick up again, he says.

"Up until about five months ago, I was a bit concerned with the level of talent that we were getting," he says. "People said, 'I'm just not ready with working for Delta right now,' or they said the industry itself is a concern."

But since Delta emerged from bankruptcy reorganization at the end of April, Medeiros says, it's receiving nearly twice the number of applicants as at the same time last year. Airline job listings abound on the Internet, many of them on sites such as SnagAJob.com, which specializes in hourly jobs at companies such as Maid Brigade, McDonald's and Papa John's pizza.

Some airlines still pitch even their lowest-paying jobs as exciting careers. A recent job posting from Northwest for $9-an-hour baggage handlers says they can "see the world with amazing travel privileges."

A United job posting for $11.50-an-hour ramp workers says, "The time is right to join United. We're on the move and headed towards an exciting new destination."

But airline jobs have been devalued by the post-9/11 industry upheaval, and many entry-level jobs now pay the same as or less than retail jobs do.

New US Airways customer-service agents, for example, start at $8.72 an hour vs. $8.81 an hour in 1999, says Candice Johnson, a spokeswoman for the agents' union, Communications Workers of America.

It also takes longer to reach top scale, and under the current contract, new hires won't ever make as much as they would have before 9/11. It now takes new US Airways customer-service agents 12 years to earn the top rate, $18 an hour. In 1999, it took 10 years to reach $22 an hour.

In terms of retirement benefits, US Airways now matches a worker's 401(k) contribution up to 3% of pay. That's down from a range of 4% to 10% of pay, Johnson says.

Mary Eldridge of Arlington, Texas, initially jumped at the chance to join American when it launched its first-ever home-based reservations agent force two years ago. She loved the job's flexibility that allowed her to stay home with her three children, its advancement potential and its free travel perks for her family of five. But she quit in October because of low pay.

She was making about $10 an hour and had to pay her own Internet and phone expenses.

"It just killed me to leave," says Eldridge, who became a preschool teacher and is making more money.

Getting their names out there

As the big airlines attempt to rebuild their employment, they're using a variety of approaches that wouldn't have been needed during earlier growth periods.

For example, in its quest for baggage handlers in Philadelphia, US Airways since May has held Saturday recruitment events -- a picnic, a pool party and an ice cream social -- to gain local attention. One Saturday, for instance, it held a recruitment event at the restaurant Cavanaugh's River Deck with the theme of "fishing for a new career." About 60 people attended to learn about opportunities at the airline.

US Airways also sponsors open houses at its recruitment office near the Philadelphia airport so potential employees can get acquainted with the Tempe, Ariz.-based carrier.

"We've got to get our name out there," says Larry LeSueur, US Airways' vice president for culture and recruitment.

Other ways airlines are trying to sell themselves to employees:

*Seeking recruitment help. To hire hundreds of ramp and customer-service workers this summer at New York John F. Kennedy, Delta worked with community centers, churches, synagogues and the New York State Department of Labor.

Houston-based Continental has hired about 100 workers through an arrangement with the city of Newark, where it operates a major hub. Continental spokesman David Messing said prospective employees apply to the airline at the city's employment office.

One of them is Jamillah Muhammad, 49, of Newark. She was unemployed when she went to the office seeking work in December and noticed that Continental was recruiting. By March, she landed a part-time job as gate agent and ticket-counter agent.

Muhammad is making about $10 an hour at Continental, and she sees room for growth. She appreciates her flexible hours and plans to use her travel privileges to see Paris.

*Friends and family. Airlines are paying employees bonuses for referring a new hire. Delta, under a policy adopted in January, pays up to a $500 bonus to the referring employee if the new hire stays six months.

US Airways is offering bonuses of up to $500 to non-management employees who refer successful candidates for baggage, ramp and customer-service jobs systemwide and ground-service-equipment mechanics at Philadelphia.

*Truth in advertising. Even as airlines pitch entry-level jobs as careers, some are revealing the worst aspects upfront to avoid hiring people who might quit after training. They tell prospective ground workers, for example, of working in extreme weather, heavy lifting and getting last dibs on scheduling work shifts.

United plans to show candidates new videos of current employees talking about the negative side of their jobs, such as a ramp worker discussing outdoor work and a customer-service agent discussing angry fliers.

US Airways has employees talk to applicants about their jobs and what's expected of them to avoid spending time on people who wouldn't like the work.

*Hiring bonuses. In a move that's controversial with longtime employees, Northwest has advertised on employment websites bonuses of up to $3,500 for $9-an-hour, part-time baggage-handler jobs at airports such as Boston and Minneapolis-St. Paul. It also has advertised $1,500 bonuses for the jobs in Seattle and Washington, D.C. During a July call with Wall Street analysts, CEO Doug Steenland downplayed the bonuses as a sign of hiring problems.

"In some markets where the demand for employees is higher, we've from time to time had to post some incentives," Steenland said. A Northwest spokesman declined to discuss the bonuses.

The bonuses are angering loyal employees who sacrificed pay during Northwest's Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which ended in June, says Stephen Gordon, district president of the union that represents the largest union at the airline, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

Their current wage of $9 an hour is down 22% from the $11 paid in 2003, he says. A $9-an-hour worker who collects the maximum $3,500 bonus would collect an hourly wage close to $11 an hour in the first year, he says.

"These concessions were to be used for successful restructuring," Gordon says. "Surely, they were not intended to be subsidizing an inadequate wage."

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