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Travelers check in at Denver International Airport. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to the Colorado Sun)

In the past year, United Airlines touted hiring bonuses as high as $10,000. It upped its starting wages to nearly $20 an hour. Earlier this week, it held an in-person job fair at the United Club at Empower Field at Mile High stadium — its second in eight months.

The company needs extra help in Denver, especially in customer and ramp service jobs, but it’s not just about recovering from the pandemic’s travel lull, said Matt Miller, United’s Denver vice president of airport operations.

“One of the reasons that we’re doing the job fair in all of our areas is because we’re growing in Denver,” Miller said. “We signed a new lease at the airport right before the pandemic. We’ll go up to 90 gates, which will open over the course of the next year to 18 months. That means we’re going to be growing our hub up to 700 flights a day.”

Matt Miller, vice president of airport operations for United Airlines Denver, was on hand to help out during the company’s job fair on Mar. 29, 2022 at the United Club at Empower Field at Mile High stadium. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

That’s a 40% increase from a pre-pandemic average of about 500 flights a day. United currently has 70 gates and is averaging 470 departures a day.

“To increase that much, it means we’ve got to hire up in order to sustain the growth,” he added. “Currently, we’ve got between 6,000 to 7,000 employees in the Denver area across all of our work groups, including our flight training center.” That number will climb to more than 10,000 in four years, he said. 

Travel has picked up. Denver International Airport is expected to get back to 2019 passenger levels this year. And even though United’s been operating at 85% capacity compared to 2019, its number of passengers in the first two months this year in Denver was 9.6% higher than in 2019 (DIA’s passenger count was still down 3.2% from February 2019).

Airlines and the travel industry were among the worst hit during the pandemic as business travel pretty much stopped in March 2020 to help slow the spread of COVID-19. The air transportation industry shed 2,700 in the first four months of the pandemic though most were regained by July 2021, according to the state labor department.

But that doesn’t mean filling openings has been easy. The leisure and hospitality industry has been a big part of the so-called Great Resignation, when workers have quit their jobs in record numbers. Economists say people quit because they found better opportunities.

“I think the experience that the United is having is emblematic of the experience of a lot of employers in those industries (because) they’re at the epicenter of this Great Resignation,” said Luke Pardue, lead economist for Gusto, a payroll and benefits services company with co-headquarters in Denver.

According to Gusto data, workers in leisure and hospitality are moving in and out of different industries because they can. The accommodations industry in Colorado had the highest rate of workers quitting in March, at 10%. Statewide in all industries, the average rate of people quitting their jobs in March was 3%, or lower than the 5% high logged last fall.

“That shows how hard (employers) have to work not only to grow and expand as we enter this recovery, but simply to maintain the employment that they had in any given month,” Pardue said. “That’s really what this economy is becoming. Employers have to find that edge that they can stand out among this pool of talent that is competing for 11 million job openings. Nationwide, there’s almost two job openings for every unemployed person, which means that on average, two businesses are competing for every single employee. So you can compete on wages but if you can’t do that, then you can also turn to benefits and try to stand out.” 

Up to $33.30/hour to handle luggage

At United Airlines, the starting wage increased to $19.64 an hour three weeks ago for ramp and customer service workers. That’s on top of medical and retirement benefits plus free flights for the employee and their family.

“We have frontline employees that are going to top out at $33 an hour now in the current contract,” said Luke David, director of ramp operations in Denver. “That’s a career. Making $33 an hour is a career job. Once they see that and start to feel those progressive steps kicking in and their salary increasing, I think people want to stay.” 

David should know. He got his start with the company 23 years ago in Lincoln, Nebraska, working part time as a customer service representative. Back then, it meant “you do everything so I was really on the ramp loading bags,” he said. “I finally got permanent and then a couple years later took a transfer to Denver.”

One of the largest needs for workers at United Airlines has been ramp workers who load and unload luggage on airplanes. Bonuses were offered and pay raises. Starting wages are now at $19.64 an hour. During the job fair on Mar. 29, United made more than 100 offers to potential applicants. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

Wages have been on the rise at the major airlines in the past month, and that’s likely because hiring has been such an issue, especially in Denver, said Mike Klemm, District 141 president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents 2,500 United workers in Denver.

“On Feb. 28 of this year, United baggage handlers were at the top of the industry (at $33.30 an hour). Then in the month of March, American leapfrogged United. And now Delta announced this past month that on May 1, they’re going to give their folks a 4% raise so they’ll go up to $33.60,” Klemm said. “So now what my job is in negotiations to get them (United) back above those other two groups.”

This is evidence of how competitive things are, especially in the Denver area, home to other IAMAW employees at Southwest Airlines and American Airlines. United’s new $19.64 starting is only in Denver, which puts a kink in union salary schedules. It starts new baggage handlers at step five out of 11, which means those workers may not see another raise for five years — and that’s now under negotiation, Klemm said. 

But rising wages are helping attract people interested in a career, which these jobs once were, he said.

“In the 60s and 70s, working for an airline was the equivalent of having a civil service job. You were proud to work for the carrier and you could make a career out of it. And then in the 80s and 90s, when we were going through a lot of bankruptcies and a lot of outsourcing, the job became more of a job,” Klemm said. “And now once again, this kind of work is turning more into a career-driven opportunity for people. They can make a career out of it and work 30 to 35 years, collect a pension and have insurance at a reasonable cost.”

Competing with … McDonalds?

United’s needs, however, are now more about its pre-pandemic plans to fill hundreds of job openings just in Denver. Four of the new gates have already opened as part of the company’s $825 million investment to have 90 gates in Denver by next year. The plan is to get to 10,000 employees by 2026.

Adding more perks to the job is now a must. It’s been so difficult to attract the large numbers of workers that the company has resorted to … job fairs. 

“It’s a more competitive environment than it used to be,” David said. “We used to never hold a career fair because all you had to do was post it and you’d get 1,000 to 2,000 applications. It’s a different environment. Now, we actually go out and recruit and let people know what we’ve got to offer and why we’re different from what some of the others are offering.”

And by different environments, David means the competition has changed. It’s no longer just other airlines.

Luke David, Managing Director, Ramp Service at United Airlines in Denver. (Handout)

“When the McDonald’s down the street is paying $18 an hour and you don’t have to drive to the airport, that’s a competitor that we never used to compete with and now we are. So we now pay more than them and we also offer flight benefits,” he said. “If you work at McDonald’s, you’re not going to be able to fly to Frankfurt on the weekend.” 

Something is indeed working. Just before the start of the 10 a.m. job fair, a line of about 60 to 70 people waited to get inside on the chilly Tuesday morning. And as the doors opened, many of the morning folks made a beeline to one specific career: flight attendants. 

Nearly 1,000 people showed up to United Airlines job fair on Mar. 29, 2022 in Denver. This particular area was where potential flight attendant employees spoke to company officials. Nearly 300 flight attendant candidates are being considered for future employment, according to United officials. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

“I’m a flight attendant for another airline,” said Sam Bailey, who flew in from Houston just for the job fair. “I love their culture. I love their company. I’ve been able to fly with them a few times and I was impressed. So I was interested in becoming a part of their team.”

Bailey would  like to be based out of Houston where she lives, but is flexible. “I’m open to going wherever the job takes me.” 

By the end of the job fair, nearly 300 attendees were interested in flight attendant jobs and are now being moved through the hiring process. A total of 970 people stopped by Mile High for the event and 350 left with a job offer, according to United. 

Bailey wasn’t one of them. 

But she’s still hopeful, she said. 

“They are taking emails and sending out links later,” she said. “So I’ll have a certain time frame to complete it and then maybe go from there.”

Tamara Chuang

Tamara writes about businesses, technology and the local economy for The Colorado Sun. She also writes the "What's Working" column, available as a free newsletter at coloradosun.com/getww....