Former Delta Pilot Finds Work Overseas

Denis and Rosalyn Waldron planned to spend more time at their waterfront house on Lake Arrowhead when he took early retirement from Delta Air Lines after 27 years as a pilot.

But the couple spends many more days in Seoul, where Denis, 58, now works as a Boeing 777 captain for Asiana, a South Korean passenger carrier.

The Waldrons didn't expect to be exiled from their home or country at this stage in their lives -- but Denis said he had to take drastic action before reaching mandatory pilot retirement at age 60.

"I always considered myself extremely fortunate at Delta because I was never furloughed and never put on the 'B' scale," said Waldron, a former U.S. Navy pilot who joined the Atlanta-based airline in 1977. "I wanted to stay at Delta, and I agonized over my decision to leave. But guys like me were getting pushed out the door."

Waldron and hundreds of fellow senior Delta pilots have retired early in the last four years to protect lump sum pension payouts that often topped $1 million each and were jeopardized by the company's Chapter 11 bankruptcy court filing. With the lump sum and anticipated $7,000-a-month pension, the Waldrons could have afforded a comfortable retirement at the lakefront house they moved into two years ago.

But when Delta canceled payments to Waldron and thousands of other retirees this year, Denis decided to go back to work and make up some of the estimated $2 million hit. He signed on with Asiana, a young carrier that was looking for senior pilots with international flight experience.

About a dozen Delta pilots who took early retirement are now working for foreign carriers in Southeast Asia, China, India and the Middle East. Unlike U.S. carriers that require newly hired pilots to start at the bottom of seniority lists, some overseas carriers allow them to join according to their qualifications and experience levels.

U.S. pilots working as captains at foreign carriers typically earn about $80,000 to $100,000 a year, far less than the $180,000 a year they would earn at the top of U.S. pay scales. But most of the money U.S. pilots make overseas is tax-free as long as expatriate pilots stay largely outside the country.

More U.S. pilots could follow them if current industry trends hold.

Aerospace giant Boeing estimates the global airline fleet will more than double to 35,000 by 2024, with the fastest growth in Asia and the Middle East. The boom will require an additional 18,000 trained pilots annually, and countries like China and India won't be able to train them fast enough.

So far, foreign carriers have been seeking out senior U.S. pilots approaching retirement age, but some predict more and more junior U.S. fliers eventually will spend their careers overseas. China will need an estimated 35,000 pilots in the next 20 years, and the rest of Asia will require 56,500.

Kit Darby, founder of AIR Inc., a pilot job placement firm, said Asian and Middle Eastern carriers have begun attending U.S. pilot job fairs.

"There's quite a bit of competition for experienced captains overseas, and demand is still increasing," Darby said. "There's an acute shortage, particularly in India and China. There's almost no civilian pilot training in those countries, and military pilots stay in the military their whole careers. Those countries are going to need more pilots than they're making, and that's likely to be true for quite awhile."

The Waldrons raised their family in Cobb County and say they treasure time with family and friends in Waleska. A glassed-in porch on the second story of the couple's 3,800-square-foot house overlooks Lake Arrowhead where, on a recent visit, trees dropped fiery autumn leaves into the chill water.

"Living overseas is hard," said Denis, a tall and lanky tennis player with a full head of graying hair. "My dad's in a hospice here, and I wish I could be with him more. The jet lag and the all-nighters are brutal but necessary. I'd rather work intensively for a relatively short period of time than draw it out over a longer time frame."

The Waldrons keep in touch with their adult children, two daughters and a son, through e-mail and phone calls. They watch cable TV in Seoul, and the entire city has wireless Internet access, so they can keep up with online news from home. Denis watches pirated DVDs on his frequent trips and says he's seen more movies in the last six months than the entire previous decade.

But the couple never expected to be uprooted at this stage in their lives -- and they resent what they call the looting of Delta by its former managers.

In Seoul, Rosalyn, a former teacher, acts as an unofficial den mother for expat pilots, cooking meals, organizing gatherings and arranging day trips around South Korea.

"We're making the best of our situation and turning it into an adventure," she said. "But Seoul isn't a vacation destination, and no one would confuse our utilitarian apartment there with [former Delta CEO] Leo Mullin's mansion on Cape Cod.

"It's the unfairness of things like [former Delta Chief Financial Officer] Michelle Burns insisting on first-class airline travel for life that gets to me," she said. "If the sacrifices had been made equally [between managers and workers], no one would have any resentment at all. But the sacrifices weren't equal."

Rosalyn is one of the few airline spouses who spends months at a time in South Korea, and she insists Denis and the other pilots get out and do things on the days they aren't flying. Eating out can be a challenge in Seoul, since Denis doesn't like garlic-rich Korean food. Their apartment is about 11 miles from the DMZ, but there's an Outback and a TGIF nearby.

At work, Denis has adjusted to sharing the cockpit with South Korean co-pilots who tend to be more formal and deferential than their jocular U.S. counterparts. All of the co-pilots at Asiana are South Korean, but other expat captains come from the United Kingdom, Australia, Thailand and Brazil.

"The Korean pilots speak good English," he said, "but their culture is much different. There's no banter or joking, and they expect to be ordered to do things in a particular way. At Delta, I'd just say 'Start 'em up' when it was time to start the engines. That wouldn't work at Asiana."

International routes frequently cross Russia -- a new experience for Waldron, who hunted Soviet submarines during the Cold War -- and he's had layovers in China, Australia and Vietnam. Air traffic controllers in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh can be particularly hard to understand, he said, and the quality of airport infrastructure varies widely in Third World countries.

Language barrier Waldron recently served as Asiana's representative at a meeting in Uzbekistan while a group of Korean and Uzbek officials discussed airline issues.

"They were all speaking Russian," he said, "and I was sitting there with my technical manuals out and not understanding a word. I counted the tiles on the floor and did my best not to laugh about the utter absurdity of the whole situation. It was pretty funny."

Waldron connects with other former Delta pilots working overseas via e-mail, and their paths frequently cross as they hopscotch the globe for their foreign employers.

Waldron considered himself a loyal Delta employee throughout his career, and he bought company stock through a payroll deduction for many years. Now, those shares in his 401(k) retirement plan are nearly worthless.

Waldron still keeps a hard-bound copy of "Delta: History of an Airline" in his living room, and he expects Delta to emerge from bankruptcy court protection next year with dramatically reduced costs. But the credit for Delta's survival should go to employees who paid the price for it, he said, not the managers he predicts will most benefit.

Waldron said he intends to work as much as possible during his time overseas. He said he and Rosalyn will have a secure retirement because they have lived within their means and made conservative financial choices throughout his flying career.

"We're going to be OK because we haven't lived on the edge," he said. "We thought we had our bases covered. It was a surprise when Delta canceled my pension. I had earned it, we had a contract, and frankly, I didn't think it was legal for them to unilaterally take it away."

There's a possibility Asiana may extend the mandatory pilot retirement age to 65 -- but Waldron said he's not sure he would keep flying even if the rules change.

He misses his family too much, he says, and long absences make him feel like a stranger when he comes home. He also says it takes more time and effort to recover from his nearly constant travel schedule.

"It gets harder and harder to get on the plane each time I have to go back [to South Korea]," he said. "I absolutely dread leaving."

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