Furloughed airline employees used to get fill-in jobs as a way to pay the bills. As soon as a recall notice came, they returned to the industry they loved.
These days the decision to return is getting tougher.
The turbulence caused by a recession, the terrorist attacks of 2001 and multiple bankruptcies have kept more than 100,000 U.S. airline workers away from their airline jobs longer than previously. And cuts in pay, pensions and benefits have persuaded many to pursue alternate careers.
With conditions improving, Delta Air Lines started recalling workers and plans to accelerate rehiring next year. It has offers out or planned for about 3,000 of the more than 6,800 mechanics, flight attendants and pilots on furlough. But the Atlanta-based carrier and others have found some ex-workers are in no hurry to return.
Just over half of Delta pilots who've been recalled opted for an immediate return. About a quarter chose to "bypass" their recall --- at least temporarily. Others took military, medical or personal leaves of absence that also deferred a decision. One result is that Delta plans to hire new pilots in January for the first time in five years.
"Flying's a great lifestyle and there are parts of it I really miss," said Rob King, 34, a Delta pilot furloughed in 2001 who deferred his recall decision so he could keep selling Atlanta real estate.
"When you put down your flight bag at the end of a trip, you know you don't have to think about work during your time off. I miss that, and I miss the guaranteed pay check compared to the uncertainty of being on commission.
"But I've done really well at real estate," he added. "I'd have to take a significant pay cut to go back to the airline. My wife and I also are talking about having kids, and it would be really great to be at home more often. She's definitely pro-real estate."
Delta has the most generous pilot furlough terms in the airline industry, giving fliers up to 10 years to come back. It was unheard of for pilots to stay away that long during previous industry slides.
King has already been away almost five years, and he's concerned the proposed US Airways acquisition of Delta, fuel price spikes or another economic slowdown could quickly put junior pilots like him back on the street. Being on the bottom of the seniority list also means such pilots have the least desirable schedules and lowest pay.
"I've got no interest in being on reserve or commuting to work in another city," King said. "If I could hold Atlanta and have a regular schedule, it would be very tempting to go back."
Gina Laughlin, a Delta spokeswoman, could not provide specific numbers on recall rates. She said the airline looks forward to getting employees back on the job.
"We're glad we're on the right track and we have the opportunity to welcome back experienced workers," she said. Pilot jobs have changed since 2001 when Delta fliers were at the top of their industry in pay, benefits and work rules. The most senior pilots on some international routes earned $300,000 a year, and pilots with regular schedules were on the road about two weeks a month. Now, their hourly pay has been cut about 40 percent, and it's not uncommon for pilots to be absent from home three weeks a month.
Still, Kit Darby, a United captain and founder of AIR Inc., an Atlanta pilot career placement firm, said the vast majority of airline pilots eventually will return to their former employers. "There's less money and less time off than there used to be," he said.
"But the flexibility to live where you want to live and work where you want to work is hard to duplicate in any other occupation. Pilots are happiest when they're flying. Once they've become accustomed to the lifestyle, they're pretty much ruined for any traditional work environment."
Rob Fryer, 39, of Canton, was furloughed from Delta in early 2002, but kept flying for the Navy.
The Naval Academy grad had stayed in the reserves when he joined Delta in 2000 and has been flying military versions of DC-9s from Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta. Military flights frequently take him to the Middle East. But Fryer, a commander, says he earns more and has a better schedule and benefits in the military than he did while flying for the airline. So he also has bypassed an immediate recall.
"Everyone who was lucky enough to have the option of going to the military has done it," he said. "The flying is very rewarding and it's challenging."
Other furloughed colleagues have taken jobs with cargo airlines FedEx and UPS or low-cost carriers Southwest and AirTran, Fryer said.
"We've also got guys that have left to become pharmaceutical sales reps," he said. "That kind of career move would have been unthinkable a decade ago."
To be sure, plenty of Delta furloughees are happy to get their recall notices.
Mechanic Troy Edwards, 43, thought his position at Delta was "the last job I'd ever have," but he was laid off last year. He went to work for TIMCO, a contractor that maintains airliners for a variety of carriers. This year he was hired to work on Air Force planes in Warner Robins.
"I get a lot of satisfaction knowing I'm supporting the war effort," he said. "But I'll definitely come back to Delta when they call. There are about 200 in front of me. Once you get commercial aviation in your blood, it's hard to give it up."
But Tom Shackleford, 44, a Delta mechanic with 14 years experience, left the airline before being furloughed and has no regrets. He's now in business for himself as a Mac Tools distributor.
Shackleford said his new position offers greater independence and the chance to earn more than the roughly $65,000 he earned during his best years at Delta. "I work more hours now than I used to," he said. "But the time flies by. It's fun."
Shackleford sold his beloved 2001 Corvette to finance his new business. Shackleford said he's too accustomed to being his own boss to consider returning to the volatile airline industry. But he misses the teamwork at Delta.
"We'd completely overhaul a plane in 45 days working three shifts. When it was done and you watched it fly away for the first time, that was an awesome feeling. I never got tired of it."
Delta is recalling furloughed workers as financial conditions improve. Here are the numbers by work group:
...............Furloughs...or planned......Recall rate
...........................................immediately, rest on leave or
Mechanics.........2,000.....900.......Delta expects 80 percent to return
Flight attendants.3,800...1,300............No firm figure or estimates
Sources: Delta, Air Line Pilots Association and staff research
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