- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2003

   This tree-lined Atlanta suburb bears little resemblance to Rust Belt communities, but the “For Sale” signs posted outside $250,000-and-up homes betray the fact that, like factory and mill towns, this area is suffering with the decline of its major industry. Layoffs at the major airlines, particularly at Delta Air Lines, have hit Fayette County hard, forcing employees to cut their spending, and in some instances, move away. A litany of problems has sliced into air travel, starting with the struggling economy and the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, and, more recently, the war in Iraq and the severe acute respiratory syndrome illness in Asia.
   The airlines’ woes have rippled to the communities their employees call home.
   Furloughed Delta pilot Grady Boyce does without the luxuries that drive economies in airline towns: No more movies, no eating out, no expensive gifts.
   “First time you get furloughed, you figure you’re not going to be out that long,” said Mr. Boyce, 34, who has been off the job a year. “It takes a while to settle in. You go through depression, a whole cycle of getting over the shock. It’s really a bummer for the people it affects.”
   In Peachtree City, an upper-middle-class community of 35,000 about 30 miles south of Atlanta and close to Delta headquarters at Hartsfield International Airport, one in 20 households has some connection to the aviation industry.
   Local officials say sales-tax revenue has dropped 3 percent in the past year, and small restaurants and mom-and-pop shops that relied on the airline employees are hurting.
   Chris Clark of the Fayette County Development Authority said his office last fiscal year assisted 187 small businesses that were looking to downsize or were on the verge of closing.
    That number swelled to 255 this year partly because of Delta’s problems, he said.
   “We’ve seen some stores change their hours, a few close, some look to other areas,” Mr. Clark said.
   Bloomington, Minn., is going through similar problems because of its concentration of Northwest employees. Bob Hawbaker, a senior planner in the community of 85,000, said there is no denying the effect the airlines’ woes have had on the local economy. In March, the carrier cut its work force by 4,900 and grounded 20 airplanes.
   “It’s critically important to business to have good airline transportation in and out of the city,” Mr. Hawbaker said. “That and the interstate highway system are the economic engines of Bloomington.”
   The plight of airline communities recalls the downturn that towns in the Northeast and Midwest experienced with the closing of steel, paper and textile mills and decline of mining and other industries. But many of those jobs were blue-collar; with the recession in the airline industry, many white-collar workers also are affected.
   In Peachtree City, Mr. Boyce said he has applied for numerous jobs looking for work in the service industry, the managerial field and as a teacher. He has had no luck.
   He has faced soaring medical costs because his 2-year-old daughter was born with a defect in her intestinal tract. His union is paying for temporary coverage, but he worries about the airline’s future.
   Mr. Boyce sold his home in late February and moved to another house nearby that could accommodate his in-laws, who will share living expenses.
   “It cut down my exposure and gave me a little bit more cash to operate with,” he said.
   More homes are being put up for sale by out-of-work employees, and fewer are being bought.
   Peachtree City has tried to diversify its economy in recent years, bringing in a wider array of businesses to make its tax base less reliant on the airlines. The city has worked to help laid-off Delta employees train for other professions.
   The diversification process began after the collapse of Eastern Airlines in 1991, Mayor Steve Brown said.
   Mr. Brown said his city is watching the airlines carefully.
   “We can weather a rough period with them as long as they stay in business,” he said.

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