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As airlines get busier, these jobs flourish

Kate Rogers

With 20 years on the job at Southwest Airlines (LUV) as a ramp agent in Dallas, 39-year-old Shane Parker is hoping for 20 more.

"It's physically demanding — you have to be ready to get down and dirty," Parker said of his job, which calls for getting luggage transported properly and helping to turn aircraft on time.

The work of agents like Parker is ever-important, with air travel on the rise and aircraft services following suit. Today, nearly 700,000 direct employees in the U.S. airline industry usher some 2 million people traveling domestically and internationally on 27,000 flights per day, according to industry trade group Airlines for America. The number of air travelers across the globe stands to nearly double in the next two decades, with the global trade group International Air Transport Association projecting 7.2 billion passengers a year by 2035, up from 2016's 3.8 billion.

"The outlook for the industry is very good. We've sustained profitability, and we are reinvesting both in our people and product and customer experience to make flying better," said Nicholas Calio, CEO of Airlines for America. "The more we hire, the more actual jobs we create in that ripple effect throughout the economy."

Adding to the industry's optimism is the White House's new focus on creating American jobs. In February, President Donald Trump invited executives from the nations' largest airlines, including Delta (DAL), United (UAL) and Southwest, to discuss travel infrastructure and regulation in February. Trump also proposed the privatization of the nation's air traffic control system in his skinny budget last month.

"They've shown a proclivity, the administration, for looking at current regulations that don't make any sense and eliminating those," Calio siad. "So, those savings, those efficiencies will make us better able to continue to invest in our employees and products."

Hiring the 'Southwest Way'

Major carriers like Southwest are hiring in nearly every part of their business, from pilots to flight attendants and administrative staff, to keep up with increased demand. The airline aims to hire some 3,800 ground operations workers this year alone.

That includes ramp agents like Parker, who has at times worked multiple jobs, as a police officer for 10 years and for a time in a band mostly made up of Southwest employees called the Blue 22's. The band traveled to Los Angeles every other weekend to perform.

"It's a great entry-level job," said Julie Weber, Southwest Airlines's vice president of people. "It's also a hard job — you have to be very motivated. You're loading bags on planes, unloading bags — working in every condition imaginable."

Applicants need to be at least 18 years old, eligible to work in the U.S. and have a high school diploma or GED.

Southwest's application process is competitive — the company hired some 7,200 workers last year from more than 300,000 applications. For ground operations positions Southwest received some 117,000 applications and hired just 3,000. They're looking for workers who can "live the Southwest way."

"We hire for attitude and train for skill," Weber said. "You need to have a warrior spirit, the desire to work really hard and have a sense of urgency. To have a servant's heart, which means you put others first, and a fun-loving attitude."

That's something newly hired customer service agent Catherine Mills, 57, is trying to embody in her role at Baltimore-Washington Airport, where no two days are the same. She's trained to deal with travelers at their very best — and worst.

"You never know what someone is going through — it's important I stay open. Never assume that air travel, or the reason for someone's air travel, is the same for anyone," Mills said.

Entry-level workers' pay starts at around $13 an hour, depending on the role, but long-tenured workers can make $30 an hour, with the opportunity for overtime. Workers also earn travel privileges for themselves and eligible dependents, a 401(k) plan with match offer, and a profit-sharing plan for eligible employees.

For ramp agent Parker, the best perk is the flexible schedule and chance to make his own hours.

"I love working the morning shift — the earlier the better. I have young kids, and they like to have their dad in the afternoon," he said.

Correction: Shane Parker is a ramp agent for Southwest. An earlier version misspelled his name.