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Published: Wednesday, 8/11/2010

U.S. airlines' staff levels nosedive to 13-year low


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

The state of the U.S. airline industry can be frustrating for passengers, but 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. 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. Meanwhile, the Internet, outsourcing, and airline consolidation are keeping work force levels close to their current size or even shrinking them.

Airline employment in the United States is now at its lowest in 13 years. Airlines have shed one-fourth of their work forces in the last decade.

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics said 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 carriers cut thousands of jobs here and shipped more overseas during the recession. 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 unprofitable routes. With fewer flights, planes are fuller. Diminishing staff and crowded planes are adding to the stress among flight attendants, pilots, and other workers.

Stress levels of airline employees got a lot of attention this week after a JetBlue flight attendant cursed out a passenger over a plane's loudspeaker and then jumped down the emergency slide. JetBlue has a no-furlough policy, rare in the airline industry. But it 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.

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, Oxford, Ohio, said it's likely that U.S. airlines will continue to show overall declines in staffing despite some sporadic hiring.

Although the number of in-flight airline employees such as pilots and flight attendants is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, the bulk of airline employees - maintenance crew and reservations and ticket agents - remain on the ground and aren't subject to federal minimums. Mr. Walsh said he thinks improving efficiency will lead to more of those workers losing their jobs.

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