After Years of Layoffs, American Airlines is Recalling Some Furloughed Pilots

Since the beginning of the year, 20 or 30 a month have been recalled. They're coming back primarily to replace retiring pilots.

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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