Working Amid a Turbulent Few Decades in the Airline Industry

Over 32 years at American Airlines, Paul Mozeak has witnessed a merger, a bankruptcy, and a new approach to airport security.

Paul Mozeak  (Rebecca Clarke )

The airline industry has evolved considerably in the more than 100 years since the beginning of commercial air travel. The first commercial flight in history, on January 1, 1914, carried a single passenger. But on the same day exactly a century later, an estimated 8 million people flew on nearly 100,000 flights, the International Business Times reports, and it takes a lot more than in years past to get them into the air.

When Paul Mozeak started working at American Airlines, one of the largest carriers in the country, as a part-time baggage handler, he had no idea that he’d be at the company for 32 years. In his career, he has witnessed firsthand some of the many changes to the aviation industry in the past few decades: pay and hiring freezes; the bankruptcy filing of American’s parent company in 2011; a recently completed merger with US Airways two years in the making; the revamping of security protocol after the 9/11 terrorist attacks; and the introduction of new technologies, such as hand-held devices that can tell if the aircraft is overweight.

For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I recently spoke to Mozeak—now one of the three American Airlines crew chiefs overseeing the fleet service crew at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York—about his work, how he’s managed to stay with one company throughout the turmoil, and all the places his family has been able to travel because of his job. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Adrienne Green: Tell me about how your job has evolved in the past 32 years, and how you got to where you are now.

Paul Mozeak: I worked as a baggage handler for six months in Jamaica, Queens, and I was offered a transfer to Newark, New Jersey, because they were going to lay off people. I worked, part time, early mornings there for three months. I stuck it out and put in a transfer to come back to Kennedy airport, where I got a full-time offer in the freight department. Years later, I became a crew chief. I stayed in New York until 1990, when I moved with my wife and my newborn twin boys to Raleigh, North Carolina. In 1995, again, American decided to cut back in Raleigh, and I was offered a transfer to a few different stations: Los Angeles, Dallas, Philly, Miami, and New York. I chose Miami.

After two years in Miami, I put in a transfer for Atlanta, but was recalled to Raleigh not long after. We stayed there for three more years, and then returned to New York in 2001. I work as a crew chief, trainer, de-icer, and I do job interviews for our department.

Green: You’ve certainly moved around a lot. What was it like to work for American in all of those different places?

Mozeak: As a crew chief, it stays the same. The only things that change are the updates that are required by the Federal Aviation Administration or Transportation Security Agency. Loading an aircraft is dangerous, so we have to be trained every year. You don't want to put too much weight in the back or in the front, because it affects the way the plane flies. We have new hand-held computer devices nowadays that give us warnings when the plane is overweight. There’s just a ton of stuff we have to do just to get the planes out on time, and we're limited with the amount of time that we have. But, if you know how to load a flight in L.A., you should be able to load a flight in Chicago.

Green: Is moving around that often typical in your line of work?

Mozeak: Yes, it is. If you work part time and you want to move up in the company, you can put in to transfer to another station. You can put in to become a crew chief at any point—whether you're part time or full time—but you have to take a test. It has its benefits, but then again, there are disadvantages as far as one’s personal life.

I enjoy the changes and the challenges, but for the workers—our wives and families have to put up with them too. You normally don't have weekends off, you have weekdays off—so when there are events that happen in your family, you can't attend. Some people have to be to work at 3:30 a.m. If you're married, it doesn't do well for your marriage. It's a hard balance to meet, and a lot of times it's not met.

Mozeak: When I moved to New York, I was looking for a job and I knew that at the time people [in the airline industry] were getting paid pretty well: You had full benefits, were able to travel, and that was exciting for a young man. I didn't have to sit at a desk everyday. We had barbecues for the union, and played in travel soccer and basketball teams—the guys from JFK would fly to San Juan or Miami to play those guys. The pay scale was also what was keeping me here. But, we got hit with some bankruptcy issues in the early 2000s, so our pay was frozen. We lost a lot of money; actually we had to give money back—about 18 percent. Ever since then, we've been trying to catch up.

Green: How did you manage giving back 18 percent of your pay?

Mozeak: It was either you give the money back, or [American Airlines] was going to claim bankruptcy and you might not have a job. The flight attendants, the pilots, fleet service, mechanics, everybody gave money back to the company, in order to save their jobs and the company. Once that happened, we said maybe we can start again, and we can build ourselves back up. That hasn't come for a long time. We're in contract talks now, and hopefully we can get it done.

Green: What happened if you couldn't pay it back?

Mozeak: Then they were going to lay off a lot of people, and the company would probably be similar to what Eastern Airlines was before they went out of business [in 1991]. Some of us left to work at different companies. I know some guys who had been here for 20 years, and they said they couldn’t wait any longer for a raise—so they've moved on. That's a hard pill to swallow when you have children, a mortgage, and bills to pay.

Green: You moved back to New York the same year as 9/11, has the increase in security regulation affected your job?

Mozeak: Before that incident, we didn't have to do security searches on aircrafts like we do now. For every flight in the morning, the crew chiefs do a search on the exterior part of the aircraft: We have to open certain panels and make sure that there's nothing in there that doesn't belong. We check the skin of the aircraft, to make sure that there's no damage to the aircraft that could have happened overnight.

The other thing that's changed is you have to be more vigilant about IDs on the field. We're supposed to challenge people, even if it's a police officer, and say, “can I see your ID?” I make sure that the ID matches that person's description: the face, the name, and that these IDs are up to date.

Mozeak: When I come in, I check my emails for updates. I give a crew chief meeting to discuss issues that we might have every month for the other chiefs here at Kennedy. I'm also an environmental coordinator and I’m on the safety committee. So if there are any environmental spills, I have to go out on the field and report that. Also, I train the new hires. For people who have been here for a while, if they haven't been trained on a piece of equipment I have to make sure they're qualified.

Green: I imagine that a lot of your work takes place outside in extreme weather. What is that like?

Mozeak: You don't really know how cold it is outside until you're standing there for an hour. You may have a flight delay, or consecutive flights, so you're out there for long periods of time. The next day, you're going to put on the same heavy coat, layers of clothing, your gloves may be wet from the day before, and you learn how to adjust. As you climb in and out of the belly to load 150 bags, you're going to start to sweat. In the heat, it's probably 10 degrees warmer on the field than it is anywhere outside of the airport because it's all concrete. When you climb inside the belly of the aircraft, it's like climbing inside of a tin can sitting out in the sun.

Green: Do you have more responsibilities as crew chief because of the size of Kennedy airport?

Mozeak: Yes. If you take a station like Nashville—where you only have a certain amount of flights—you only have a certain number of personnel to worry about and you can probably get a lot done within a shorter period of time. I have 600 employees that myself and two other trainers are responsible for. When someone falls behind on their training, we get updates. We deal with a lot at JFK, Miami, Dallas, L.A., and Chicago, because we have international flights and you have to have customs and background checks done.

Green: What was the American Airlines and US Airways merger was like for you?

Mozeak: US Airways was at a different terminal than ours, so they had to bring their aircrafts over to us and we had to handle their aircraft. At all the other US Airways stations, like Charlotte or La Guardia, the US Airways personnel handled their own aircrafts. But because the merger was completed after about two years, we had to handle both [loading plans] separately. They had some of their trainers come up here and show us how they did things, and we in turn, showed our 600 people how to work with their aircrafts. It took some time, and it was very challenging: We had to learn how to use their load plan, their equipment, and do everything by their book. Now that the companies are merged, we won’t have to do both.

Green: What is the most challenging thing about this job that you've seen over the course of three decades in the industry?

Mozeak: All the new regulations have changed so fast in the airline industry. Now we're under more of a microscope, whereas in the past, it was load the plane, throw some bags on, call a load agent and that was it. Now, everything has to be accounted for. Everything is on a fuel-savings program, to save money for the airline industry. When you say that you are a baggage handler, it's not what people used to think. Nowadays, it's a little bit more complex. We work hard out there.

Green: How has being in the airline industry affected how you look at your identity?

Mozeak: As my sons were getting older, we did a lot of traveling. We've been to places with names I couldn’t even pronounce at the time; having that access has changed their lives and mine. We’ve been to Russia, Slovakia, Japan, Argentina, Germany, London, Paris—and those benefits I cannot put a price on. One of my sons speaks Russian, French, and Spanish. My other son also speaks Spanish, and they've done very well. Hopefully when I retire, I'll be able to get something out of this too.

This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a train conductor, a travel agent, and a taxi driver.