Hiring spree brings new blood to American Airlines

Instructor Liam Rivera goes over evacuation drills.
Instructor Liam Rivera goes over evacuation drills. Star-Telegram

As a kid growing up in Southlake, Ryan Tate watched American Airlines jets fly over his house as they prepared to land at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.

Now the former military pilot is ready to hop into the cockpit and fly those jets himself as he starts his career at American.

“We knew we were moving back, and American Airlines is to Texas like Dr Pepper is to Texas,” said Tate, who was stationed at Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi before moving his family to Grapevine. “If we’re moving home, there is only one airline to fly for, and that’s American.”

Tate, 30, is one of thousands of new hires at the Fort Worth-based company, which has been in expansion mode since its 2013 merger with US Airways. In the first eight months of 2015, American has hired more than 8,700 workers systemwide, including both new jobs and open positions.

That figure surpasses the 7,273 employees American hired last year, when it increased its workforce by 3.3 percent to 113,300. The carrier has about 25,000 workers in North Texas, having added about 1,500 locally last year. And more are on the way.

More than 1,400 new reservation agents were brought on to help customers as American and US Airways prepare to merge their passenger reservation systems in October. Almost 1,900 new fleet service workers have been hired at airports, including 450 at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport who were needed this year when American rebanked the flight schedule at its largest hub.

This is the first time I’ve seen a big hiring by the company, and I started in 1989. … The new blood is needed.

American gate agent Gilda Villamil

The hiring spree is a dramatic turnaround from just a few years ago when American was downsizing in Bankruptcy Court.

In 2012, American was offering early retirement packages and voluntary buyouts. Now, posting record profits, the airline is advertising “great opportunities and a bright future at American” on its job listings website.

“We’re now in position where if you want to build a career at American, the company will be here for you for the length of your career,” Chief Executive Doug Parker says in a welcome video shown to new hires.

The additions mark the biggest hiring surge at American in over a decade, with recruiters’ offices turning their lights back on and changing how they go about selecting new employees.

Reservation-agent applicants are being screened with a new automated telephone interview, and other candidates have to pass personality assessments before getting an in-person interview. Web-based applications and screening software also help recruiters sort through the thousands of applications that American receives for positions all over the world.

Some are attracted to the flight benefits, which take effect the first day someone joins American. Others simply want to work for the world’s largest airline, company recruiters say.

Telephone auditions

Spending eight hours a day answering phone calls from customers wanting to buy tickets or change reservations requires a certain temperament and, more important, a calming voice.

When American decided to hire more than 400 new home-based reservation agents this spring, it auditioned candidates using voice interview software, said Eva Zablodowsky, a new-hire recruiter assistant.

The program, which has also been used by the pilot and flight attendant recruiters, is sent to applicants who make it through the online application and screening process. Job candidates are told to call in and are recorded answering five questions.

Zablodowsky said recruiters listened to 2,100 recorded telephone interviews this past spring and whittled down the candidate pool. The next steps included an airport code test and an in-person interview.

“You have some folks who are looking for a second career where they’ve already retired and they’re coming to American for flight privileges,” Zablodowsky said. “We have some that are just out of school who are coming on board, and then we have the in-betweens, such as stay-at-home moms coming back into the workforce.”

8,700workers hired so far this year at American Airlines

Caryn Clark, 43, is one of those stay-at-home moms who decided it was time to go back to work now that her kids are grown.

After dropping off a friend at the airport for a trip to South Korea, Clark wistfully thought about all the places she wanted to go. So she checked American’s website to see whether the company was hiring and applied to be a home-based reservation agent.

Clark, who was hired this spring, was most nervous about the 50-question airport code test, which applicants must complete within 90 minutes.

“I studied like crazy because you have a week to 10 days to learn 250 codes,” Clark said. “I had flashcards. I wrote them five times each. I did whatever I could because I really wanted the job.”

Test your knowledge with our interactive airport code quiz

While there is some attrition among reservation agents, Zablodowsky said, American hired hundreds of home-based agents this spring in case passengers had problems with tickets during the combination of the American and US Airways reservation systems.

And Zablodowsky will be busy screening candidates again this fall when — for the first time in a decade — DFW’s reservation center hires 400 new office-based agents. Those jobs start at $10.33 an hour.

Now that Clark has worked from home for a few months, she said, she’s becoming more comfortable answering customers’ questions and resolving their problems. Her most challenging call so far was helping a family of six with its tickets.

“She had booked in January, and now the fare was much lower for the flights where one was on the US Airways system and the other was on American’s system,” Clark said. “It was just difficult to get it accomplished, but overall I haven’t seen a lot of issues with the [systems] migration. … I feel when Oct. 17 gets here, it’s going to be really smooth.”

New languages, new blood

Moving from the Congo to DFW several years ago, Remy Ditu had to learn a new language.

But Ditu, 24, didn’t realize he’d have to learn yet another language when he was hired in July to be a gate agent for Envoy Air at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.

All new gate agents take part in a two-week training class where they learn how to issue tickets, boarding passes and luggage tags.

Instructor Mark Myruski said new hires typically struggle the first few days as they learn input codes with symbols like the Cross of Lorraine or acronyms such as PNR and INF.

“You have to think about this as if you’re learning a new language called Sabre,” Myruski said, referring to the computer reservation and ticketing system that American created in the 1960s. “It’s not anything like a Windows-based system where you type and tab.”

Myruski said he’s been teaching the same introduction class, which typically has 20 new hires, for most of the year.

“They’re new and they’re fresh and they’re excited,” Myruski said. “I have the opportunity to make it a fun and exciting learning experience for them and hopefully they leave feeling prepared and ready to go out and face the traveling public.

One of my friends who is a flight attendant as well told me to apply, and I gave it a shot and I love it.

Matt Yee, 22, newly hired flight attendant

Ditu said he hopes to make this his career, but he is a little nervous about his first day working as a gate agent at the airport.

“I like traveling and I like talking to people,” Ditu said. “I hope this will be a good experience.”

Shaiara Fariha has learned how to deal with passengers who are upset about delayed flights or lost luggage. Fariha, 20, who has worked as an American gate agent for six months, said her in-class training helped but didn’t prepare her for a 50-year-old customer who sat on the floor and cried like a baby when he missed his flight.

“I was so shocked, and I didn’t know what to say to him,” Fariha said. “What we learn in the training room, it is totally different when you come onto the floor.”

The first week at the airport, the agent is paired with a mentor, like Gilda Villamil, who helps explain the daily duties.

“I just tell them you have to be relaxed and it’s one customer at a time,” Villamil said.

While working a DFW flight to Madrid this summer, Villamil and Fariha discussed how the mentor-mentee relationship makes the job easier for both.

“They are so patient and they are so calm with us new hires,” Fariha said, acknowledging that one mistake can cause a lot of problems.

Villamil said she enjoys teaching new agents like Fariha how to interact with customers, which included upgrading some of the passengers on the Madrid flight.

“This is the first time I’ve seen a big hiring by the company, and I started in 1989,” Villamil said. “The new blood is needed.”

Training for China

Matt Yee never dreamed of being a flight attendant.

Now he can’t imagine doing anything else.

“One of my friends who is a flight attendant as well told me to apply, and I gave it a shot and I love it,” said Yee, 22, who speaks Mandarin and works routes to China from American’s base at Chicago O’Hare Airport.

Yee, along with dozens of other flight attendants, was at American’s training facility last month to become certified on the airline’s newest plane, the Boeing 787-800 Dreamliner.

The attendants learned that the Dreamliner has no over-the-wing emergency exits, and they picked up a handy mnemonic to remember the seat letters in first class (All Divas Have Luggage) for Row 1, Seats A, D, H and L.

Over 700 flight attendants have been hired in 2015, including those like Yee who have language skills needed for international flights that American keeps adding to its network.

Yee said he hasn’t spilled a drink yet, although he has dropped a food tray. He is usually the youngest one on his flights since most international attendants have worked for American for decades. He often hangs out with the experienced crew members during their layovers in China because he speaks fluent Mandarin.

One time when his flight from Chicago to Beijing was canceled, Yee found himself helping passengers who were hanging out at O’Hare waiting for the next flight.

“I was like a designated speaker at McDonald’s, helping this massive line of people trying to exchange their voucher tickets for food, and I was helping each one of them get what they wanted,” Yee said.

Changing cockpits

Fort Worth resident Nathan Sidwell, 33, walked into American’s training center on his first day not knowing what kind of plane he was going to fly or what city he would be based in.

Sidwell, who flew C-130s for the Marine Corps at Naval Air Station Fort Worth, met an American Airlines pilot at a kid’s birthday party a few years ago who suggested he think about flying for the airline.

“He said, ‘We’re going through bankruptcy right now, but in a couple of years when you get out, give us a call,’” Sidwell said.

When his time in the Marines was up, he started the application process with American.

Within a few minutes of the start of class for pilot hires, Sidwell and about a dozen other pilots learned that they would be based at either New York LaGuardia or Miami and would fly Boeing 737s or Airbus narrow-body aircraft.

Sidwell was one of two “off-the-street” hires to start at American this month. The others in the class were pilots who had flown for American’s regional subsidiaries Envoy Air and Piedmont Airlines.

“Half of a new-hire class on average is going to be comprised of the flow-through pilots, and those guys and girls have been flying for the regional carriers for anywhere from 15 to 25 years,” said Jim Thomas, managing director of flight training and standards. “They have an enormous amount of experience.”

Thomas said the company is averaging about 50 new pilots per month, with plans to hire close to 500 this year. And with hundreds of pilots at American reaching mandatory retirement age, the company is constantly training pilots on new aircraft types.

“Every retirement, for example, requires about six to seven additional training spots,” Thomas said.

On the first day of training, pilots learn about American’s history and share why they want to work for the airline.

Tate, the former military pilot who grew up in Southlake, told the group that he had heard from family friends who worked for American that the company was changing and now was a good time to start his commercial flying career.

“When you think about where the company is headed and seeing all the new orders for the airplanes, just the thought of having that new-cockpit smell … I’m excited,” Tate said.

Andrea Ahles: 817-390-7631, @Sky_Talk

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Source: American Airlines