Some of the closed airline’s ex-employees report a difficult time finding their wings
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Apr 1, 2011
It’s been three years since Aloha Airlines shut down, and former customer service agent Joe Kauweloa is just scraping by on his pension and the occasional income he gets as an on-call bellman at the Ilikai.
The 58-year-old Kauweloa says no one will hire him even though he keeps applying for jobs.
Barry Kane, 63, was Aloha’s most senior pilot when he retired less than a year before the March 31, 2008, closing. Now he is getting a third less from his pension than he was expecting. His shortfall is $48,000 a year, which includes $3,000 a month less in pension payments and the $1,000 he must now pay in monthly health premiums that the company was to have paid.
Billy Remular, a customer service agent who now works in a similar position at Hawaiian Airlines, still can’t bear to talk about the dark day that ended Aloha Airlines’ 61-year history in the islands. “Too emotional,” he said.
The pain still lingers for many of the roughly 2,000 employees who lost their jobs three years ago in the biggest mass layoff in state history. Hawaii economists point to that event as the beginning of the state’s recession.
But, as Kauweloa put it yesterday during an afternoon potluck in Salt Lake on the third anniversary of the shutdown, “Life goes on.”
“I’m struggling,” Kauweloa said. “I’m still suffering. My unemployment ran out, and I’m living on my pension from Aloha Airlines. I can’t believe it. It hurts but you see it every day. There’s nothing you can do. Just take one step at a time and move on.”
Kauweloa, who worked at Aloha for 35 years, said he has applied at Hawaiian Airlines, Lowe’s and Kamehameha Schools without success. He’s now awaiting word on the application he recently submitted at Aulani, the Disney Resort & Spa scheduled to open this August at Ko Olina.
Patti Smart, 72, who retired four months before the shutdown after 50 years as a flight attendant, said a group of former Aloha employees get together for a luncheon on the last Thursday of every month.
“We were a family and families never separate,” she said. “We are together for weddings and funerals, and we’ve met once a month for three years. It just happened this year that the Thursday luncheon fell on the third anniversary of this demise.”
An anniversary event also was held last night at Ige’s Restaurant in Aiea.
Smart blames a confluence of events for the shutdown.
“I think the storm was the fuel going up,” she said. “We needed bigger aircraft to fly to the mainland. Our flights were always full, but we didn’t have enough seats to pay for the fuel.”
She also cited the airfare war spurred by newcomer go! and questioned the capability of management.
“How can you fly with a $1 ticket?” Smart said of the one-time go! promotional fare. “When they had the price wars, we fell for it and we couldn’t keep up. So I think all of us at Aloha will never fly on go! even if we have to wait days. We’ll goon Hawaiian.”
As for Aloha’s management, she said “it didn’t make sense we were going under even though we had full loads to the mainland.”
Kane, who retired in June 2007 after more than 38 years as an Aloha pilot, also singled out the price of fuel and said that if Aloha had been able to have larger planes like Hawaiian, “we most probably would be here today.”
The Boeing 737-700s that Aloha flew to the mainland held 124 passengers, while Hawaiian’s Boeing 767-300ERs it uses on its mainland flights seat 264.
Kane said about a third of the 325 pilots working at the time of the shutdown have since found other pilot jobs, the majority of those at Hawaiian Airlines.
“But some people decided that they weren’t going to pursue pilot employment outside the state of Hawaii or chose to become schoolteachers, lawyers, doctors or whatever,” he said. “They’ve changed their career path completely.”
Other employees out of the 3,500 who worked at Aloha were in cargo or contract services divisions that were acquired by other companies.
Dave Chock, 64, who worked as a pilot for 32 years at Aloha, said, “For some of us, age is a big factor” in whether they are considered hirable by prospective employers.
John Baker, 66, a 39-year flight attendant, was still working when the airline suddenly closed and said no other job afterward would have compared to his job at Aloha.
“Naturally, you’re shocked,” he said. “You’re disappointed, and you kind of put up a wall and say, ‘Nah, this can’t be happening. No, it’s not real. It will all work out.’ I was preaching at work that it can’t happen, the state won’t let it happen. A lot of the kids were having a hard time. The only way they could have gotten me out of there was closing the door.”
Kane, who had flying privileges after retiring from Aloha, was left without a way back home to Hawaii from Oakland, Calif., when Aloha abruptly shut down. So he bought a full-fare ticket on ATA Airlines a few days later.
“They felt sorry for me and put me in first class and said how badly they felt about what had happened to Aloha,” Kane recalled. “And less than 12 hours after I landed in Honolulu, ATA was gone, too.”