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Commercial Pilots See Hope After A Very Long Decade

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On September 11, 2001, Doug Beidler watched the coverage of the attacks on the World Trade Center with the rest of his American Airlines flight class. He’d flown over the Twin Towers two days earlier and he watched them crumble in disbelief, not knowing how profoundly what was unfolding on television would affect his life and the lives of the other commercial pilots in the room.

“Everyone was huddled around the TV, but I don’t think any of us were thinking about losing our jobs,” says Beidler, now a major in the Air Force based out of Omaha. “Then they came into our class and the class ahead of ours and terminated everyone.”

For the commercial airline industry, the fallout from 9/11 was both personal –- United and AA employees were killed –- and financial, with pilots furloughed as air travel declined rapidly in the wake of the tragedy. Experienced pilots like Beidler, about to be given the jobs they had worked a career for, found themselves suddenly unemployed. Many more would be furloughed in 2002 and 2003 as the industry languished and total number of affected pilots neared 10,000.

Now, with airlines facing what is liking to be an avalanche of retirements due to age restrictions -– and in need of new blood to satisfy new rest-between-flights regulation -– the industry may finally be turning around for commercial aviators.

Finding Work

Like many others, Beidler, 57, spent the last decade bouncing from job to job, trying to stay in the air. He’s worked across the country teaching at flight schools and flying different sorts of planes. When he worked for the regional carrier Tradewinds out of Greensboro, he was assigned to fly his plane to Roswell, New Mexico, the site of massive plane graveyards and let go as he was walking down the stairs to the tarmac.

Though Beidler understood the vicissitudes of working as a commercial pilot even when he was still flying fighter jets for the Marines -– and despite his naturally cheerful disposition –- he’s far from content about the way things went.

“I think the pilots were treated poorly by the management,” says Major Beidler. “A lot of us left other jobs to go to American, got there and were fired. Still, I want to go back and I plan on it. I don’t fly with the management. I fly with the pilots and I have no problem with them at all.”

According to Kip Darby, a former captain for United turned airline industry consultant, Major Beidler is far from alone in resenting the behavior of American, which, with United, furloughed the most pilots. According to Darby’s figures, American and United still collectively have about 2,500 furloughed fliers.

“These pilots felt poorly treated and a fair number won’t return because of the politics,” says Darby, adding that many more likely will because the perks of jobs at United and American are so good that any pilot would be hard pressed to stay defiant.

Looking Up

The good news for pilots according to Darby, is that 2012 will be the beginning of a hiring bonanza. By his calculations, large commercial airlines could need five percent more pilots to be able to maintain their current schedules with rest rules. But those are small gains compared to the 2,000 pilots a year he expects to begin leaving commercial aviation as they hit the age limit of 65 — raised from 60 in 2007 to the dismay of younger pilots. Add in the droves likely to retire from regional airlines, many of which have already struggled to staff flights, and it will be, for the first time in a long time, a pilots’ job market.

Darby himself is hoping to see his domestic partner, a pilot furloughed in 2003, get herself back in the air. “I was not affected to much after the attacks, but I live in a piloting community and a lot of people I care about were,” he says.

The Air Line Pilots Association, a union that represents some 53,000 pilots, took the furloughs so seriously it created a Furloughed Pilots Support Program.

“The change in the industry in the decade following 9/11 was significant,” said union spokesperson Shauni Harvey, who pointed out that the damage done by September 11 to the industry is no longer best measured in furloughed numbers because it has become difficult to tell who is a victim of what. The recession brought cutbacks and layoffs as well.

Though ALPA is still embroiled in a lawsuit with American over the fates of furloughed TWA pilots, things are looking up at both United and American, where the increase in hiring seems to have started, albeit at a slow pace.

“We’ve recalled pilots every month so far in 2011, averaging approximately 30 to 40 pilots per recall class,” said American Airlines Spokesperson Missy Cousino. In August, 111 pilots retired from American, prompting reports by the Associated Press and Bloomberg newswires that the company was already spread so thin it was asking pilots to delay vacations.

Burned Before

Commercial Pilot message boards, which are surprisingly numerous, have recently become firefights between the optimistic and the jaded. A fairly middle of the road posting from the Airline Pilot Forum reads: “Rumor at AA is that we will be hiring off the street in spring. (And furloughing 6 months later. LOL).”

The optimists tend to argue that the airline industry has grown on average roughly 5 percent a year for a very long time despite economic downturns. The pessimists tend to point out that the optimists have been burned before.

Major Beidler, who is due to ship out to Afghanistan as soon as his broken ankle heals, believes the evidence points toward one conclusion: It is only a matter of time before he gets the phone call he’s been waiting on for nearly ten years.

“It’s gonna be fun to be back,” he says. “I probably won’t make Captain, but I’m alright with that. I’ll make a great First Officer. The thing is, I’ve been down a hard road and I stayed in the business. I’m never going to get the dream job. So be it.”