Mar. 26 -- After almost two years on the ground, Debi Schultz wondered whether she would ever return to the skies.
The American Airlines pilot, laid off in March 2005, had exhausted much of her savings and had piled on debt. She spent nine months unemployed before taking a low-paying job answering calls at a financial-services company.
She considered selling her Keller home and even contemplated abandoning her dream profession and becoming a nurse.
"Things had gotten tough," she said. "And then the phone rang."
That call last November was from American, telling her that she could return to the airline and to flying -- her passion since she was 18 years old.
"I just said, 'Thank the Lord,'" she recalled, wiping away a few tears. "It was a very, very happy moment."
Schultz, 48, is among the first pilots to return to Fort Worth-based American after years of layoffs that grounded thousands.
The airline isn't bringing pilots back in huge numbers. Since the beginning of the year, 20 or 30 a month have been recalled, said officials with the Allied Pilots Association, the American pilots union. They're coming back primarily to replace retiring pilots, said Rusty McDaniels, chairman of the union's furlough committee.
Still, it's a marked difference from just a few years ago, when furloughed pilots worried that they might never return to their old jobs.
"It's a thrill to be welcoming people back," said Bob Johnson, American's director of employee relations. "It's nice to see those smiles on their faces."
American's recalls come amid an upswing in demand for pilots. Delta Air Lines and Continental Airlines are hiring pilots, while Northwest Airlines and US Airways are bringing back furloughed ones.
Meanwhile, foreign airlines are increasingly recruiting American flight crews, and growing discount carriers, like Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, are adding to the pilot ranks.
Regional carriers, such as American Eagle, continue to hire. Eagle, the regional affiliate of American, has been holding job fairs to recruit prospective pilots and expects to hire 700 this year.
Last month, nearly 900 pilots were hired in the United States, about one-third at the major airlines, according to consulting firm Air Inc.
"The overall job market for pilots has improved dramatically," said Kit Darby, president of Air Inc. and a pilot for United Airlines. "If a trained pilot wants to fly, there's usually an opportunity out there."
But pilots with the major airlines are often willing to wait years to return, eschewing other flying jobs out of fear of losing their seniority. They say it's a passion for the job, plus the salary, benefits and prestige that come with flying for the major airlines, that makes it difficult to give up.
Schultz's love for flying runs in the family.
Her father was a United pilot. She said she knew that she wanted to fly professionally the moment she took her first flying lesson at age 18.
"It's like no other feeling in the world," she said. "It's an addiction. It gets in your blood."
She spent years as a flight instructor and flew cargo runs before joining American Eagle in 1985. She worked there for more than 15 years. In January 2001, she moved up to American Airlines, flying an MD-80 from Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.
But she always knew that flying can be an unstable profession. She remembers her father being furloughed from United and said he worked unloading trucks while waiting to be recalled.
"He just said you do what you have to do to keep food on the table," she said.
That worry increased after 9-11, as American parked scores of airplanes in the desert.
"I think a lot of pilots had forgotten just how cyclical this business is," said Cheryl Cage, a career consultant who works with pilots. "At some point in your career, you're going to be furloughed or merged, or your airline is going to go under, and there's going to be a time when you're not flying."
For Schultz, it finally happened in March 2005.
The next months were difficult. Although she had the opportunity to return to Eagle, she declined because it would have meant leaving North Texas, something she couldn't do for family reasons.
She soon found that employers were hesitant to hire furloughed pilots. "They don't want to bother with you, because they know they might lose you as soon as you're recalled," she said.
And like many pilots at the major carriers, she didn't want to go to work for a smaller airline, because that would have meant giving up her chance to return to American.
"I cashed out the balance on a credit card and lived on that," she said. She pondered selling her house and using the proceeds to pay for nursing school.
She eventually got a job working in a call center for CitiCorp for much less than her pilot salary.
"I just kept hoping things would turn around and they'd call me back," she said.
But not all pilots are returning to their old jobs when offered the chance.
Many experienced U.S. pilots, lured by lavish salaries and benefits, have taken jobs with foreign carriers, many based in Asia and the Middle East. Others have begun businesses or new careers during their downtime and aren't ready to return to the pilot lifestyle.
At American, about half of recalled pilots don't come back right away, McDaniels said. Pilots can defer a recall and be put at the top of the list in the future, he said.
"Some of them might never come back," he said. "They've found other jobs out there, and they're not ready to just drop it."
Others are waiting for a better recall opportunity, he said. They may want to be based at a different airport or fly a different type of aircraft. Currently, most recalled pilots are assigned to New York or Miami, McDaniels said.
"If you're living on the West Coast, that can be a real problem," he said.
Schultz said she was fortunate to be eligible for one of the few slots at D/FW. After several weeks of training to reacquaint herself with the MD-80, she took off for the first time Feb. 1.
"It was like coming home," she said.
She's now a reserve pilot based at the airport, which means she fills in for other pilots when needed. Her 9-year-old son stays with her father and family friends when she's away from home, she said.
"I've got some challenges as a single mother that a lot of other pilots don't have," she said. "So I'm very lucky to have that support in place."
American executives decline to say how many pilots they plan to recall, although union officials say it has averaged about 30 a month and could reach 40 monthly this summer.
"We expect it to go at about that clip for some time" because of the pace of retirements, McDaniels said. About 2,800 American pilots remain on the furlough list.
But McDaniels added that contract negotiations could affect the recall rate. Management is pushing to increase pilot productivity, he said, which could mean that fewer pilots would be needed.
"Until American starts expanding again, there won't be a big need for new pilots," he said. "So it's really in the company's ballpark right now."
In the meantime, recalled pilots such as Schultz can savor returning to a job they love.
"I was talking to my son about it the other day," she said, "and he told me he's happy I'm flying again because I'm not grumpy anymore."
Once again she dabbed away her tears. "It's just so good to be back."
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