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.

The statewide unemployment rate has more than doubled to 6.5% since last March while the overall economy has lost more than 19,000 nonagricultural jobs.

Looking back at the past year, former Aloha CEO David Banmiller expressed frustration about how the events turned out.

In a telephone interview from his home in Texas, Banmiller said Aloha was "extremely close" to finding a buyer last spring before soaring fuel prices scuttled the deal. Banmiller would not name the investor but multiple sources have said that Aloha had been in close talks with United Airlines.

"When fuel prices hit $110 a barrel, the deal went sideways," said Banmiller, who said he is taking several months off to visit family and friends on the Mainland. "I'm very sad about how things ultimately worked out, especially for people who spent so many years of their career with that company."

'It's ... rough out there'

Former Aloha flight attendant Jo Ann Fukao considers herself lucky.

The 56-year-old Kaimuki resident took a job with a local property management firm shortly after Aloha closed but was later hired as Mokulele's assistant director of customer service.

"Working for an airline is one of the most exciting jobs you can have," said Fukao, who joined Aloha in 1976.

"You meet so many people from all walks of life."

Former flight attendant Grace Lee is one of many former workers who successfully switched careers.

Lee, who worked for Aloha for 15 years, was recently hired by the Hawaii Tourism Authority as a tourism specialist.

Lee said that many of her former co-workers have had a difficult time since the shutdown, especially those who don't have college degrees. Some are working cash registers at Target and eight former co-workers are now at Whole Foods' Kahala store, she said.

"It's really rough out there," she said.

Wayne Wakeman, who worked as a pilot at Aloha for 19 years, said he's been unable to land a pilot job with another airline. The 57-year-old Kaimuki resident said he is now studying for his licenses to sell life insurance.

Unlike younger pilots who have been able to find overseas jobs, Wakeman said his age limits him from getting that kind of work. Most of those jobs require five-year contracts that would put him over the mandatory retirement age of 60 for pilots on international routes.

Wakeman, whose unemployment benefits ran out earlier this month, said he'll find a way to survive the tough times even if it means "sleeping on a couch." He added that he greatly misses his career as a pilot.

"Sometimes when I'm driving or on a walk and see an airplane, I look up and say, my gosh I used to do that, and I really, really miss it," Wakeman said. "I think a lot of pilots and flight attendants are going through that."

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