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'This Is All I've Ever Known': Amid Cuts, Airline Workers Wonder Where They'll Land

The drop in air travel has left tens of thousands of airline workers wondering what they'll do next. For some it's a career change; for others it's finding a temporary job until the industry recovers.
The drop in air travel has left tens of thousands of airline workers wondering what they'll do next. For some it's a career change; for others it's finding a temporary job until the industry recovers.

Airlines have furloughed tens of thousands of employees. Now they wonder what they'll do next. For some it's a career change; for others it's finding a temporary job until the industry recovers.

Lizz Jansen's first airline job was not one she thought would launch a career. She dreamed of becoming a photojournalist. Her parents, both airline workers, helped her get a job processing crew members' receipts for reimbursement.

"It was boring, but it was a job, and it was insurance, and I was 19 years old, and I needed something," she says. Jansen wound up spending 20 years at the company, a major airline.

The sudden drop in air travel because of the pandemic has left Jansen and tens of thousands of other airline workers wondering what they'll do next. For some it's a career change; for others it's finding a temporary job and hoping that the industry recovers soon.

From her first clerical job at the airline, Jansen made her way into work that was exciting, complex and rewarding: pilot scheduling. She rose to become the department's trainer. It was a career she thought could be hers for life.

Then in late July, Jansen learned over a Zoom call that her position would be cut. She opted to take a voluntary separation package. Aug. 15 was her last day.

With passenger volumes down nearly 70% from a year ago due to the pandemic, airlines have lost billions of dollars. This week, United Airlines and American Airlines furloughed more than 32,000 employees.

Now 39, Jansen always feared something like this could happen.

"I don't have a college degree. I don't have any formal official training. This is all I've ever known," she says.

When a storm or a mechanical problem grounds a flight, it's her department that scrambles to find a replacement crew, preventing cascading delays and ensuring safety.

"I like all the different puzzle pieces. It's never the same thing every single day," Jansen says. "Everybody thinks, 'Oh my gosh, we're going to be 10 minutes late.' But you could have been two hours late. We're minimizing a lot of that."

She's now looking for a new job and hasn't ruled out returning to the airline, but she knows it may be awhile before that's possible.

"We recovered from 9/11. We'll recover from this. It's just a lot slower this time around," she says.

Veronica Clemente became a flight attendant in part because she loved to travel. In March, when coronavirus cases began to soar, she no longer felt safe flying, so she opted to take unpaid leave.
/ Joe Kleinschmidt
Veronica Clemente became a flight attendant in part because she loved to travel. In March, when coronavirus cases began to soar, she no longer felt safe flying, so she opted to take unpaid leave.

Flight attendant Veronica Clemente had a choice to make earlier in the pandemic. In March, as air travel dropped precipitously, she started getting emails from her employer, another major airline, informing her that flights were being cut and they needed flight attendants to take unpaid leave.

Clemente, who'd joined the airline in 2016, did not hesitate. She was already feeling uncomfortable with flying, fearful she could catch the coronavirus. She started with a monthlong leave and then extended it, keeping her health insurance and travel benefits as part of the agreement.

In need of some income, she refreshed her profile on Care.com and was soon booking babysitting jobs in the Washington, D.C., area, a side gig she'd kept up since her college days. It's been a smooth transition.

"There's a joke in the airline industry that being a flight attendant, you're basically an overpaid babysitter," Clemente says.

Beyond the endless patience required for both jobs, flight attendants also have valuable first-aid skills and extensive training in how to deal with a whole gamut of emergency situations.

Clemente has had no trouble finding plenty of babysitting work, but it pays a lot less and she misses the travel and flexibility of her old job. As a full-time flight attendant, she worked just 12 days a month, allowing her to plan around big events and family gatherings.

"Now that I've been away from it for so long, it really helped me to see how lucky I was to have that job," she says.

Courtland Savage believes he came close to being furloughed from his job as a pilot for a regional carrier, narrowly making the cutoff. Still, it's been a rocky year.

In the first few months of the pandemic, he hardly flew at all. He was still paid for a minimum number of hours under his contract, but that minimum was cut by almost 30%, and he also lost bonuses he was to receive as a first officer.

Courtland Savage founded the nonprofit Fly for the Culture to attract young people of color to jobs in aviation. As a child, Savage says he never met a Black pilot.
/ Jim Schmid Photography
Courtland Savage founded the nonprofit Fly for the Culture to attract young people of color to jobs in aviation. As a child, Savage says he never met a Black pilot.

When he was scheduled to fly, he found planes had more crew members than passengers. "Nobody was flying," he says. "I remember going to the airport, it was like a ghost town. It was a very, very eerie feeling."

Being away from flying has given him time to pursue his other passion: Fly For the Culture, a nonprofit he founded to draw young people of color to aviation.

As a kid growing up in North Carolina, Savage says he never dreamed of becoming a pilot.

In high school he joked with a friend that if a Black man were to become president, Savage, then a teenager, would fly a plane. "That's how far-fetched I thought it was," he says and laughs.

Twelve years later, he's looking to acquire a small airport, where he could build flight and maintenance schools and host community events and camps.

He knows things are going to be rough in aviation for a while — at least a few years. But he sees opportunities ahead.

"All those pilots that did all that early retirement, they're not going to be there to staff these positions when the industry recovers," he says.

Before the pandemic, the industry was facing a severe pilot shortage. Savage believes the shortage will be even worse once the pandemic is over.

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