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Furloughs are part of the flight plan for some

To an engineer or a nurse, getting laid off five times might be an impetus to switch careers.

Not so for United Airlines pilot Kit Darby, for whom getting kicked off airline payrolls early in his career was almost as common as flying.

Darby lost jobs, hopped among airlines, struggled to pay bills, even launched his own business _ anything but give up on returning to the cockpit.

"I've been furloughed five times, and two of the companies I've worked for have gone bankrupt," Darby said. "In the past, you were pretty much on your own."

Although sporadic job cuts have been a staple of the airline industry for decades, Darby typifies the thousands of workers who weather the downturns and return to their old jobs.

Credit the love of travel, the prestige of the uniform or the promise of a lucrative career. Whatever the motivation, the lure of flying draws pilots, flight attendants and mechanics to an industry that many are reluctant to leave.

That's true this year, as airline workers once again are praying for their airlines to rebound from widespread job cuts _ this time prompted by a plunge in the number of passengers after the Sept. 11 terrorist hijackings.

In spite of the horrific cause of the latest furloughs, many airline employees are ready to return to their jobs.

Since the attacks, major carriers have shelved more than 100,000 workers, including about 20,000 at American Airlines of Fort Worth, Texas.

Those marked the first extensive staff reductions in about a decade, but they are merely the latest slump in a business in which longtime employees are all too familiar with boom and bust cycles, bankruptcies and layoffs.

American flight attendant Mickie Frye of Fort Worth had little experience with the industry's turbulence before she lost her job last fall.

She was furloughed by American only a few months after she began her new career. But that was long enough for the onetime retail manager to get hooked.

Now she's teaching horseback-riding lessons to get by financially until the airline calls.

"It's more of a lifestyle instead of a career," Frye said.

Months into the downturn, workers such as Frye have a glimmer of optimism. Carriers have brought back some of their discharged employees, and American plans to recall at least 400 flight attendants in April.

Until broader hiring resumes, some airline employees are searching for work in other industries, consultant Cheryl Cage said, but such jobs often are a stopgap to cover their families' expenses until they can return to the sky.

"The minute that the airline wants them back, that's where their heart is," said Cage, author of The Resilient Pilot. "If someone is an accountant and they get furloughed or whatever, there's other places to go where they can still do the work that they love. Pilots _ there just aren't that many jobs out there."

So, too, for flight attendants.

Amber Ripp, an American Airlines attendant based in Chicago, was laid off in October. She said she has no doubt she'll return to duty as soon as the airline beckons.

"When you're furloughed from the airline industry, you know you're going back to work. It's just a matter of when," Ripp said. "It's very hard to just go out and get another job."

Ripp flew for more than five years with American Eagle before moving up to the big jets at American last year, and she doesn't want to give up the career now.

In fact, she is so enamored of flying that she took advantage of the free time that joblessness brought to earn a private pilot's license. Eventually, she dreams of becoming a professional pilot.

"This is my life," Ripp said.

In addition to flying, Ripp has spent the past few months planning her upcoming wedding. That seemed the most practical use of her days, she said, since temporary jobs have been hard to come by. Harder still, Ripp figures, for pilots whose specialized, technical skills aren't in demand on the ground.

"For flight attendants, it's a little easier than the pilots," Ripp said. "Flight attendants can go get a job as anything in the retail industry or customer service industry."

Ripp, who expects to return to American in April, will get that opportunity because airline labor contracts generally spell out provisions for increasing and decreasing the number of employees.

For most unionized airline employees, there's no such thing as a layoff. Rather, they are "furloughed" _ forced off the job, with the pledge that the carrier eventually will recall them.

Seniority, which dictates workers' schedules, duties and salaries, also determines who loses their jobs and for how long. The least experienced employees are the first to go and the last to return to the roster, so that employees eventually come back to the same spot in the pecking order as before their furloughs.

"Everything is dependent on seniority _ your schedules that you fly, the types of airplanes that you fly, the days off that you get, where you're based, and basically if you're going to get furloughed," Cage said.

American Airlines Captain Jeff Sheets knows that firsthand.

He was grounded for more than three years in the early 1980s, when an economic recession set off several waves of furloughs at American and other carriers.

As the months dragged into years, Sheets considered jobs at smaller airlines, including the now defunct Air Florida and People Express. But those carriers insisted that he relinquish any right to return to American, a sacrifice he wasn't willing to make.

So Sheets, who was in an Air Force reserve unit at the time, moved from Chicago to California to earn money in the military.

"I took computer courses for a year, and I did well at it. But it convinced me I really didn't want to sit behind a computer eight hours a day," he said. "It was always flying that kept me going."

Most of Sheets' colleagues made similar decisions. Of 575 pilots who were let go with him, he estimates that all but about 50 ultimately returned to American.

In the past, all manner of hardships _ recessions, significant drops in passenger traffic and a strike by air-traffic controllers in the 1980s _ have spurred airlines to shed workers. The tumult of deregulation sparked extensive furloughs, some of which became permanent job losses when airlines faltered, said John Mazor, a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association.

Although labor groups don't keep track of the furloughs of yesteryear, airline workers remember the early 1980s as a tough time as a weakened economy sparked furloughs at various carriers. On a smaller scale, the early 1990s also brought a surge of layoffs.

"It just seems like it happens every decade," Sheets said.

Mazor, who has been active in the pilots' union for more than 20 years, said pilots used to take for granted that they'd face unemployment at some point in their careers. But as airlines grew in recent years, many junior employees escaped that uncertainty until now.

"The old-timers would tell pilots that you can expect to be furloughed two, if not three, times before you get enough seniority that you're sitting above the high-water mark," said Mazor, whose union represents 66,000 pilots at various airlines.

Darby shouldered that and more.

The United pilot, who is now president of Air Inc., an Atlanta company that provides career information to airline job seekers, flew for Braniff International Airways and Capitol Airlines before each went belly up. In the mid-1980s, he worked at Republic Airlines, which was gobbled by Northwest Airlines.

Such upheaval was commonplace as carriers adjusted to the deregulation of their industry after 1978. But today's furloughs provoke the same feeling of dismay among workers that Darby experienced 20 years ago, he said.

"The first time you're furloughed, you usually feel pretty rudely treated. You take it personally, and you don't realize it's just business," Darby said. "It's a tough thing for a young pilot who's worked so hard to get the job."