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Decline in airline industry hits Kew Gardens in purse

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As an apartment manager for his family’s 14-year-old Metropolitan Avenue real estate business, Jerry Gaeta normally spends his days filling out lease agreements for the droves of aviation workers who call Kew Gardens home.

But lately, with up to 5,300 local airline personnel out of work, he has spent more time completing loan applications for his struggling rental agency than screening prospective tenants.

“Our business only deals with furnished apartments for flight attendants, pilots and ground crew,” he said. “They’re getting furloughed left and right.”

Like many Kew Gardens businesses, Gaeta’s has suffered drastic losses since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The residential neighborhood of winding streets and Tudor-style homes has long been a favorite of airline workers drawn to the area by brokers who waive fees and offer relaxed leases, furnished apartments and help in finding roommates.

It is not known exactly when airline workers began moving to Kew Gardens, but Murray Berger, who has lived in the neighborhood for 44 years, said they have been there longer than he has. He believes the first aviation workers, enticed by Kew Gardens’ public transportation links to both Kennedy Airport and Manhattan, started moving there shortly after Idlewild International Airport, now JFK, opened in 1948.

But layoffs have rocked the airline industry since the Sept. 11 attacks, driving many of Kew Gardens’ estimated 8,000 aviation worker residents out of town and forcing Gaeta to divert his attention away from rentals and toward securing funds to help his business stay afloat.

“I’m sitting here filling out forms for Small Business Association loans and FEMA loans,” he said. “It’s a mess.”

Gaeta said his agency returned many apartments it had managed to their owners and estimated that he has “a couple dozen empty units” in a townhouse complex owned by his family. “Economically it puts a hurting on us,” he said.

He could not estimate how much money his business has lost since Sept. 11 but said “it’s a lot.”

Gaeta’s agency is struggling because people like Kahala Wilson and her three roommates have lost their jobs. Wilson worked as a flight attendant for American Airlines for three years and is one of an estimated 5,300 Queens air transportation workers who will be out of work due to the attacks, according to a report by the Manhattan-based Fiscal Policy Institute.

“It’s not fun, that’s for sure,” said Wilson, who lives in a townhouse complex owned by the Gaeta Group. For now, the furloughed flight attendant, originally from Hawaii, plans to remain in Kew Gardens while she looks for a new job.

“I’m one of the few,” she said. “There’s not a whole lot who are staying.”

A laid-off United flight attendant who did not want her name used said she was staying in New York for another month to look at graduate programs in psychology, but would most likely move back home by December.

“Kew Gardens is a place for people to be when they’re not home,” she said. “Without a job it’s difficult to stay here.”

Robert Deloach, a veteran flight attendant who has held onto his job because of seniority, is losing income anyway. “I used to fly to Europe, Asia and Africa. Now it’s Butte, Billings and Birmingham,” he said. “It’s really impacting my quality of life, the money I make, my time off.”

Wilson said the mood of the neighborhood has noticeably changed. “You don’t see the people you used to see,” she said. “I knew everybody in every apartment, but now half the people are somewhere else.”

Area merchants are noticing. Like Gaeta’s rental agency, the health club, cleaners, deli, Chinese restaurant and laundromat that share its block have suffered a steep drop in business because of the widespread layoffs.

Julio Alba’s Metropolitan Avenue delicatessen, which relies on airline workers for half its business, has seen a 30 percent drop in sales in the last month.

Across the street, Bobo Cleaners, which offered a discount on cleaning airline uniforms, has also watched business decline by 30 percent, said its owner, Eric, who would not give his last name.

On the corner of Metropolitan Avenue and Lefferts Boulevard, a Kew Gardens Car Service “Q Runner” van, which normally carries six passengers, prepared to leave for JFK with only one.

“We’re down at least 50 to 70 percent,” said a driver as he waited, without luck, for his van to fill up. “We have to go empty at times.”

Meanwhile, Gaeta allowed all furloughed workers out of their leases, taking a severe financial hit, and has even had to rent space of his own in local garages to store furniture.

But Gaeta said his business will persevere.

“Right now it’s a disaster, but we’re going to get through it,” he said. “We survived Eastern Airlines going out of business, we survived Pan Am going out of business, we’ll survive this.”

That is little solace to Alba, who after struggling for 20 years to build a successful deli business, is being forced to “make it” again.

“They’d come for a sandwich and a soda late at night or to buy beer,” Alba said. “Now they’re coming to me looking for boxes to pack their things.”

Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

Posted 7:25 pm, October 10, 2011
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