"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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Just over half of Delta pilots who've been recalled opted for an immediate return.
In the minds of many, AirTran is now the safe haven airline employer in Atlanta.
In the minds of many, AirTran is now the safe haven airline employer in town.