A year after shutdown, 20% of Aloha Air workers jobless

It's been a year, but Wendy Oh Young still feels the sting from the shutdown of Aloha Airlines.

Although she has a master's degree and nearly two decades of experience as an Aloha flight attendant, the 41-year-old McCully resident said she was out of work for 11 months and only recently took a job as a kitchen helper at her son's preschool when her unemployment benefits ran out.

The job pays about half of what she was earning at Aloha and is more physically demanding, she said.

"My hands are all cut up and I get tired standing in front of a sink all day," Oh Young said.

"With the economy the way it is, you can't be choosy."

Oh Young's hardships are hardly the exception. About 20% of the 1,900 workers who lost their jobs when the state's No. 2 airline went out of business on March 31, 2008, remain jobless.

According to the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, 381 former Aloha workers exhausted their unemployment benefits, meaning they were not able to find a job during the 46 weeks they were eligible to receive unemployment checks.

For those who did find jobs, many no longer work in the local airline industry and some have had to take lower-paying retail jobs with Target and Whole Foods Market.

While a few former Aloha pilots were hired by the airline's competitors, most have had to fly for lower-paying airlines on the Mainland or take jobs in faraway places such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, South Korea, Japan and India.

Several ex-Aloha pilots were working for airlines in India and were in Mumbai last November when terrorists took over the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower Hotel and killed 166 people.

"The shutdown was very devastating for many of us," said former flight attendant Tracy Oshiro, who also has been out of work for about a year.

To be sure, many of Aloha's former workers did land jobs with local carriers. Mokulele Airlines currently employs 54 former Aloha employees while Hawaiian hired 316 former Aloha workers last year, or nearly 60% of all of its new hires last year.

Hawaiian Airlines CEO Mark Dunkerley said the former Aloha workers have "fit in really well" at Hawaiian.

"The overall feeling is what happened wasn't just another company closing its doors. It was something more than that," Dunkerley said. "In many ways, the competition between Hawaiian and Aloha defined the identities of both companies."

Jobless rate has doubled

Aloha Airlines, dubbed "the people's airline," closed its doors and terminated 1,900 workers in Hawaii's largest mass layoff. The company blamed soaring fuel prices and a fare war touched off by the June 2006 launch of interisland carrier go!

The closure of the 60-year-old carrier left thousands of travelers stranded, disrupted cargo shipments and sent fares soaring.

Fares fell back to earth in November when Kailua, Kona-based Mokulele Airways and Republic Airways of Indianapolis formed a new partnership providing low-cost interisland passenger service.

The Aloha layoffs were the first of several mass terminations to hit Honolulu's business community.

Since July, Maui Land & Pineapple Co. has laid off more than one-third of its payroll, or 372 workers, due to the weak economy and soaring fuel prices, while Hawaii Superferry this month terminated all 236 of its workers when the state Supreme Court struck down a law allowing the ferry service to operate while it conducts an environmental review.

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