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

Oct 2, 2020
Originally published on October 5, 2020 12:45 am

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

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

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.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So what next? That's the question so many airline workers now have to ponder. Air travel remains down about 70%. American and United just furloughed 32,000 employees. NPR's Andrea Hsu caught up with three airline workers who are thinking about their futures.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: In March, coronavirus was taking off in the U.S. Veronica Clemente started getting emails from her airline. With so many flights cut, they needed flight attendants to consider taking unpaid leave. For her, it was an easy choice.

VERONICA CLEMENTE: I didn't feel comfortable flying at that point.

HSU: She returned to her standing side gig - babysitting.

CLEMENTE: There's a joke in the industry that being a flight attendant, you're basically an overpaid babysitter.

HSU: For adults who sometimes act like children and need to be talked to in that same tone of voice.

CLEMENTE: Sir, I just need to ask you one more time, please take your seat. I don't want you to get hurt.

HSU: Flight attendants actually have loads of skills that are a real plus for child care. They know first aid. They're trained on all kinds of emergencies. Clemente had no problem finding plenty of babysitting work, but it pays a lot less, and she misses the travel and the flexible schedule. As a full-time flight attendant, she worked just 12 days a month.

CLEMENTE: 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.

HSU: Now, tens of thousands of airline workers can relate. Lizz Jansen's first airline job was not one she thought would launch a career - she processed crew members' receipts. It was pretty boring. She almost got fired. But from there, she made her way to a job that was high pressure and fast paced scheduling pilots.

LIZZ JANSEN: OK, well, if our one crew is stuck in Denver and they're supposed to be in Chicago, I need to make sure, is there another crew member in Chicago that can take that next flight out on time?

HSU: It's a 24/7 operation with a lot of highly regulated moving parts.

JANSEN: I just found a passion for it. I liked all the different puzzle pieces. It's never the same thing every single day.

HSU: Two years ago, Jansen was promoted to a more senior job as the department trainer. Then at the end of July, she was told over Zoom that her job was to be cut. She opted for voluntary separation, capping 20 years at the airline.

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

HSU: Courtland Savage is one of the lucky ones. He's a pilot for a regional carrier and does not expect to be furloughed. This summer, he did lose almost a third of his pay. He barely flew for months.

COURTLAND SAVAGE: Oh, my God, no flights - nobody was flying. I remember going to the airport. It was like a ghost town.

HSU: What he gained, though, was time, which he poured into his other passion, a nonprofit he founded called Fly for the Culture. He wants to get young people of color interested in aviation. As a kid in North Carolina, he never dreamed of becoming a pilot.

SAVAGE: I was joking with my friend and said, hey, if a Black man become president, I'm going to go fly an airplane.

HSU: Barack Obama was, of course, elected. So at age 17, while still in high school, Savage called up a flight school, got his parents to co-sign a loan and started training.

SAVAGE: I'll never forget it. We took off and I'm talking not even 20 seconds I was - already knew that's what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

HSU: He forged a path through military service in college. Today, he pilots a 50-seat jet for the regional carrier. Flights are picking up this fall. He knows things are going to be rough in aviation for a while, maybe a few years, but he sees opportunity ahead.

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

HSU: So his message now to young people - don't give up hope, prepare for the future. Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THURSTON MOORE'S "BREATH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.