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Airline staffs hits record lows, with room to fall

Full flights? Get used to them. Stressed flight attendants and call centers in India? Get used to those, too.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Full flights? Get used to them. Stressed flight attendants and call centers in India? Get used to those, too.

While the current state of the U.S. airline industry can be frustrating for passengers, it's bad for employees, too — and some suggest it's getting worse.

U.S. airlines have cut jobs for two straight years, the government said Wednesday, an acceleration of a trend since 2001. What's worse for employees: There's no indication that trend will reverse sharply anytime soon.

Reducing labor costs and flight schedules has helped most U.S. carriers return to profitability for the first time in three years. They aren't in any hurry to change that formula. Meanwhile, the Internet, outsourcing and airline consolidation are all keeping work force levels close to their current size — or even shrinking them.

Airline employment in the U.S. is now at its lowest point in 13 years. One in four airline workers has been shed in the last decade.

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics said the level of U.S. airline employment in June was the second-lowest in 20 years, falling to 563,551 full-time equivalent employees. In the same period, annual passenger traffic jumped about 65 percent.

Job losses at U.S. airlines have sped up since 2008, because the recession forced carriers to cut thousands of jobs here and ship more overseas. The industry has lost 54,000 jobs, or 16 percent of its work force, in the last two years.

Faced first with soaring fuel costs and then a slump in travel demand between 2007 and 2009, airlines dropped routes that weren't profitable. There are fewer flights to choose from, so planes are fuller. Diminishing staff and fuller flights are adding to the stress among flight attendants, pilots and other workers.

The stress levels of airline employees got a lot of attention this week after JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater cursed out a passenger over a plane's loudspeaker and then jumped down the emergency slide. JetBlue has a no-furlough policy, which is rare in the airline industry. But JetBlue also ranks near the bottom of industry pay scales, according to Karla Kozak, a Southwest flight attendant and union representative who's helping to organize JetBlue flight attendants.

Southwest Airlines is JetBlue's chief competitor. Southwest is heavily unionized. JetBlue is not.

Both companies posted a profit in the second quarter, as did most other major U.S. carriers.

The April-June quarter was financially the best for U.S. airlines in three years, as the combination of fewer seats and more travelers allowed them to raise fares.

So far, they've resisted the temptation to expand on the first hints of improving demand. That's good for the airlines' bottom lines, but also evidence that hiring will continue to be slow.

David Walsh, an associate professor of management at Miami University, said it's likely U.S. airlines will continue to show overall declines in staffing despite some sporadic hiring. While the number of in-flight airline employees like pilots and flight attendants is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, the bulk of airline employees — maintenance crew, reservations and ticket agents — remain on the ground and aren't subject to federal minimums. Walsh thinks improving efficiency will lead to more of those workers losing their jobs.

More web reservations and self-scanners at airports are eliminating the need for extra employees as well. Also, the airline industry is continuing to shrink as companies combine. United and Continental hope to become one by the end of the year. That almost certainly will mean fewer employees as the companies eliminate overlapping staff.

"In mergers whatever promises are made about (saving jobs) — you can pretty much dismiss those," Walsh said. "Layoffs are always part of the picture — shedding some people in the process is what makes the airlines more profitable."

U.S. airlines are building up cash reserves and looking for more passengers and more than one quarter of profits before they expand hiring.

That echoes what's happening in other industries. U.S. company job openings overall fell for the second straight month in June, a sign that hiring isn't likely to pick up in the coming months.