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

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."

The Honolulu Advertiser is owned by Gannett, the parent company of USA TODAY.

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