AirTran Gains Workers as Struggling Delta Cuts Back

In the minds of many, AirTran is now the safe haven airline employer in Atlanta.

It's almost midnight and Brad Brown, 30, is overseeing a crew of 10 mechanics giving an AirTran Airways Boeing 717 a thorough once-over known as an "A check."

Two mechanics at the rear of the 124-foot jet replace filters and do other routine engine chores. Another worker opens wing panels.

Some are inside the plane, while an inspector points out a chafed wing area that he wants buffed smooth.

In other parts of AirTran's flood-lit hangar at Atlanta's airport, mechanics work with quiet intensity on 21 jets that will have to be back in business before the sun rises.

The busy scene represents a new dawn of another sort for Brown and several of his compatriots. They are part of a group of about 75 AirTran employees who used to do similar work for archrival Delta Air Lines.

Since joining fast-growing AirTran a little over a year ago, three days after he was furloughed from Delta, Brown has been promoted to supervisor. He's also become a dad and started house-shopping - "something I can do when I have job security," he said.

Perhaps nothing more aptly symbolizes the two rivals' reversed fortunes of recent years. In the minds of many, AirTran is now the safe haven airline employer in town.

Indeed, it's one of the few economic bright spots lately on the Southside of Atlanta. At a news conference in June in the same Atlanta hangar, Gov. Sonny Perdue trumpeted the 7,700-employee airline's projected growth of about 500 jobs a year in the state through 2010.

Otherwise, the Atlanta airport's neighborhood is bracketed by disappointments, including the announced closings of the Ford assembly plant off the east end of the runways and Fort McPherson a few miles away. Delta, which filed for Chapter 11 protection last September, has cut almost 30,000 jobs since 2001, although its local headcount has remained more stable.

The pay gap between Delta and AirTran employees has also shrunk and in some cases been reversed - at least for similarly experienced employees - after Delta cut most employees' pay twice since 2004.

Delta told arbitrators weighing pilot pay cuts earlier this year that its pay scale for many employees was already lower than pay for similarly experienced employees at AirTran and other carriers. Senior airport agents and mechanics is now lower than AirTran's, Delta said, while its senior reservation agents only make about $2,000 more a year.

After Delta pilots agreed to a 14 percent pay cut in April - their second since 2004 - AirTran pilots now make about the same money as Delta pilots flying similar-sized jets.

According to Air Inc., a pilot career service based in Atlanta, Delta's pilot pay ranges from about $43,000 a year for new hires to $167,000 for senior captains flying the biggest jets. AirTran's pilots make $35,500 to $147,000 a year.

Delta spokeswoman Gina Laughlin noted that many Delta pilots are still better-paid than those at AirTran because they fly bigger jets, while AirTran flies only two relatively small types of jets, 717s and 737s. She also said there are still "hundreds" of job openings at Delta for airport or reservations agents and even some mechanics.

"Delta continues to offer excellent career opportunities for current and potential employees, particularly in Atlanta as we grow our network footprint and rebuild our company," she said.

On average, AirTran's non-pilot employees still tend to be lower-paid than Delta's because the growing airline hired them more recently.

Ken Miller, an AirTran mechanic who was furloughed from Delta in 2004, said his hourly pay dropped about $6 since he lost his nearly $60,000-a-year job at Delta. But Miller said most friends at Delta have since lost their jobs or departed, and he figures those left are paid about the same as he is.

It wasn't supposed to turn out this way, added Miller.

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