By David Koenig -- AP Airlines Writer
DALLAS (AP) — Just a month out of college, Liam Broderick landed his first job as a pilot for a budget airline. It lasted nine months.
Broderick hasn't worked for an airline since September, when he and hundreds of other pilots and flight attendants were laid off by Spirit Airlines. Like other carriers, Spirit slashed its work force to cope with rising jet fuel costs, then a slump in travel caused by the recession.
The 23-year-old has wanted to fly airplanes for as long as he can remember, and he isn't discouraged by the brevity of his first job.
"I'm optimistic I'll be back," he says. "I'm young enough that I can take the hit."
Labor market forecasters say Broderick is right.
U.S. airlines are hurting now and thousands of their former employees have been furloughed, but demand is expected to grow over the next several years for everything from pilots to mechanics and air traffic controllers.
Younger workers will be needed, they say, to replace baby boomers. By some estimates, about one-fourth of the nation's 400,000 airline workers are already eligible to retire. Experts say the aviation industry would be facing a people shortage already, but that many older workers put off retirement because their homes and retirement portfolios have plunged in value.
"We'll come out of the recession and those 401(k)s will be replenished — and people will be even closer to retirement," said Tom Captain, who runs the aerospace and defense practice at consultant Deloitte LLP. "The crisis is still pending, but it's been delayed."
The Labor Department estimates that by 2016 the aviation industry will need to hire 14,000 pilots because of higher demand for air travel, plus thousands more to replace current pilots who will retire. In 2006, there were an estimated 107,000 pilots, co-pilots and flight engineers, including 79,000 at airlines.
Much of the hiring will be done at regional and low-cost carriers, according to the Labor Department.
"The long-term growth rate for professional pilots is excellent," said Tim Brady, dean of the aviation school at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., "but they have to be patient with their careers. It's going to be punctuated by ups and downs."
The Federal Aviation Administration runs the nation's air traffic control system and faces a labor shortage that can be traced back to 1981, when President Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 striking controllers.
The FAA was forced to scramble for replacement workers, and nearly three decades later, that generation — the bulk of the nation's 25,000 controllers — is ready to retire. The FAA estimates it will have to hire 15,000 controllers by 2017. It hired 2,196 last year.
Ventris Gibson, the agency's associate administrator for personnel, said she has a database of 100,000 people who've expressed interest in the jobs. The FAA stopped accepting new applicants.
Gibson said she believes that during a recession jobseekers are drawn by the security and benefits of government work. Plus, average pay is $107,700, according to the FAA.
By law, newly hired controllers must be under 31 for the high-stress jobs, and mandatory retirement age is 56 — nine years earlier than airline pilots must quit. They must pass an FAA-approved education program, get a security
clearance, and undergo training at the FAA academy in Oklahoma City.
More must be done to encourage young people to enter aviation fields, according to industry officials and the International Air Transport Association, a trade group for global airlines.
They say U.S. colleges don't produce enough engineering and science graduates, and many would rather work at Google Inc. than for an airline.
After heady years in the late 1990s, the nation's airlines have lost billions in this decade and several big carriers have gone through bankruptcies that left employees with lower wages and less generous benefits.
Many pilots had to adjust their dream of earning $200,000 while working 10 or 12 days a month. Labor and management often fight with each other. Perks such as free travel have been scaled back. Fees and poor service have alienated customers.
"The sad thing is that the airline business is not as much fun nor as well-paying as it used to be," said Mike Boyd, a consultant to airlines and their unions.
The airlines' financial problems have "probably changed the perception of the career somewhat," said Daniel Garton, American's executive vice president of marketing. But he said hiring will someday resume. "It'll be exciting, it'll be a shot in the arm."
Captain, the Deloitte executive, said the hero's treatment given to Chesley Sullenberger after he safely landed a crippled jetliner in New York's Hudson River in January will boost the allure of a career in the cockpit.
Broderick, the young pilot laid off from his first job, landed on his feet by going back to Embry-Riddle as a flight instructor. He is grateful to his alma mater and enjoys the work, but he really wants to be at the controls of a jetliner again — even knowing the industry is a turbulent one.
"I know enough people who hate their jobs," he said, "and that's not how I want to live."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.