Hit First by the Coronavirus Pandemic, Arline Workers Seek New Paths

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This was supposed to be the year that Steven Ray Littles II put down roots in the Seattle area. Instead, he returned to his parents’ home in Bakersfield, Calif., after taking a buyout from Delta Air Lines, ending a six-year career as a flight attendant.

He enjoyed the job, which allowed him to travel widely and make new friends from a variety of backgrounds. But Mr. Littles, 32, feared his job was vulnerable because the coronavirus pandemic had dealt a huge blow to the airline industry.

“I was looking at it from a safety net perspective,” he said. “What control do I have in this situation, and how am I going to make this the best opportunity for myself?”

Across the country, airline workers like Mr. Littles have wrestled with similar decisions because of a substantial decline in travel and the growing fear that many passengers may not return for years. Congress threw the industry a lifeline in March by offering airlines $25 billion as long as they refrained from major job cuts.

That requirement expires on Thursday, and airlines have warned that unless lawmakers extend that program, they will furlough tens of thousands of workers. To limit the number of layoffs, airlines have asked employees to voluntarily accept pay cuts, extended leaves, buyouts or early retirement. Tens of thousands have signed up.

Southwest Airlines has said so many employees have volunteered for such programs that it won’t furlough workers through the end of this year. Delta is also largely avoiding furloughs for now, though it might reduce its staff in some professions, including pilots.

Mr. Littles said that his decision to leave Delta hadn’t been easy, but that he and his family had gone through a similar transition a decade earlier. During the last recession, his parents could no longer afford to keep their three sons and his mother in college. Mr. Littles volunteered to drop out. He moved home and worked a series of jobs. A stint loading bags onto planes at the local airport turned into a job at the ticket counter. That led to a job as a flight attendant.

Mr. Littles, who had never been east of Little Rock, Ark., started in 2014 and moved to New York City. He discovered and fell in love with Bozeman, Mont., and visited Dublin; Bogotá, Colombia; and Accra, Ghana.

“These last six years felt like the best college course or life experience I could ever have,” he said. “You feel like you get this back door to the real world.”

After getting sick this year from what he now assumes was the coronavirus, Mr. Littles signed up for temporary leave in March. That prompted him to think more carefully about his future. Flight attendants at Delta are not unionized, so what were the odds that he, with relatively little seniority, would survive a furlough? Was it time to move on?

Mr. Littles took the buyout, which included medical coverage for one year, providing him a sense of security as he explores starting a drone photography business.

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Credit…Sarah Huny Young for The New York Times

In four decades as an airplane mechanic, Mike Stoica survived expansions, contractions, a bankruptcy and a merger. But when American Airlines offered early-retirement packages this summer, he decided it was time to go.

“To me, at my age, it was a no-brainer,” said Mr. Stoica, who is 71.

He had planned to work longer, but the retirement package ensured that his younger wife would have health insurance coverage until she qualified for Medicare. His last day at work was Friday.

Mr. Stoica was the crew chief for American at Pittsburgh International Airport and is president of his union chapter. He is particularly proud of being tapped to assist the federal officials who investigated an engine failure on US Airways Flight 1549 in 2009. That flight ended when Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III famously landed a plane on the Hudson River. The project took Mr. Stoica from a barge on the river to a huge General Electric engine facility, where the failed components were dissected.

“We had some really neat moments,” he said. “The responsibility is huge.”

Now, Mr. Stoica is looking forward to turning his attention to planes of a different size. He recently finished restoring a 1944 Boeing Stearman biplane, and has another project lined up.

Credit…Jovelle Tamayo for The New York Times

Tina Jackson’s decision to accept a retirement package from Alaska Airlines was bittersweet. Leaving meant saying goodbye to co-workers who acted like extended family and threw her a baby shower when she adopted her daughter nearly two decades ago.

“When something happens to one of us, it happens to all of us,” said Ms. Jackson, 56, who worked in the reservations department.

As the pandemic wore on, it became clear that the industry would become smaller, and Ms. Jackson’s colleagues started to worry about their jobs. So she volunteered for a three-month furlough. When the airline offered retirement packages, she took one to help her colleagues who needed to work.

As a reservations agent, Ms. Jackson would often hear people at their best and worst. When someone called to buy tickets for a wedding or to visit a new grandchild, she could share in that joy. When a customer called to buy a ticket to attend a funeral, she could try to make his or her life a little easier.

For now, Ms. Jackson plans to stay at home with her husband on San Juan Island in northwest Washington. But once it’s safe to do so, she hopes to spend retirement traveling the globe, starting in Europe, with the help of lifetime flight benefits.

“For 20 years, I’ve gone all around the world and never left my chair,” she said. “I wanted to go to all these amazing places that everybody was telling me about.”

Credit…Matthew Odom for The New York Times

When his retirement began this month, Robert Browning Vaughn II was sitting next to the pool with his wife, Kimi Vaughn, at a Mexican resort in Cabo San Lucas. The trip had long been planned for Mr. Vaughn’s 60th birthday, but the retirement was a late addition. Mr. Vaughn, a former Delta pilot who goes by R.B., had intended to work five more years, but then the airline offered early retirement.

He had been furloughed in the 1990s, but felt that Delta had given him a good career and allowed him to build a schedule around his family’s needs. So he decided to return the favor and help a colleague with less seniority. He also realized it was time for a break after a string of personal tragedies.

“I’ve gotten to do what I dreamed of doing,” he said. “Now, I don’t have to go to another hotel room unless it’s one of my choosing.”

Early in his career, Mr. Vaughn flew internationally, but he switched to shorter, domestic trips so he could more easily return home to help his first wife, who had depression and other conditions, and his son, who has autism. In 2015, Mr. Vaughn’s wife, to whom he had been married for 33 years, killed herself.

He took time off to grieve and care for his son. In 2017, he started dating Kimi, who worked at his son’s school. Mr. Vaughn’s father died that summer, and his wife’s daughter died last year. His mother died in February, and his grandmother died of the coronavirus this summer.

“Burying that many family members in such a short period, each one of those changes your perspective on life,” Mr. Vaughn said. “We’ve had a lot of heartache, but we try to look at the things we’ve been blessed with.”

He and his wife had planned to travel the world, but are sticking to domestic trips from their home near Atlanta for now, like a road trip this week to Santa Fe, N.M. He also plans to ride his Harley-Davidson and golf with his son more frequently.

Credit…Sarahbeth Maney for The New York Times

As a flight attendant and instructor at Alaska Airlines, Julia Ortega saw the unfolding crisis weigh on her colleagues as they arrived for an annual recertification class. She was worried, too.

Ms. Ortega, 34, and her husband married in February and were planning an April wedding celebration in Mexico, but had to postpone twice, to November and now to May. Also, they live in the Bay Area, where the cost of living is high. But after seeing her colleagues agonize about the future, Ms. Ortega decided she could afford to step back, volunteering to take leave in the spring and signing up for a nine-month unpaid furlough starting on Thursday.

“If I had that chance to take a leave and allow them to keep a job, to at least save one more of my co-workers, then that’s what I would do,” she said.

These past few months have prompted some soul searching. Ms. Ortega had chanced into the job a decade ago when she met an airline recruiter at the restaurant chain where she trained staff. Though she had considered another career change, Ms. Ortega decided she wasn’t ready to give up on aviation and is confident she’ll be called back as the economy improves.

“You either love it or you hate it, and I’ve grown to fall in love with the industry,” she said. “So I’m not going anywhere until they kick me out.”

For now, Ms. Ortega is spending time at home with her two dogs, while her husband continues to work in airport operations at San Jose International Airport. To keep busy and stay healthy, she has been running outside, building on a wedding workout regimen.

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