NEW YORK – American Airlines is celebrating the seven-decade service of a New York mechanic who turns 87 next month and has no plans to retire.
Azriel "Al" Blackman was 16 when he started as an apprentice mechanic in July of 1942, long before bag fees, airport security or even the introduction of the jet engine. He was paid 50 cents an hour.
Seventy years later, he still reports to work every day at American's aircraft maintenance hangar at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
"I don't consider it work, really," Blackman said Wednesday. "If you like what you do, it's not work."
The Fort Worth, Texas-based airline invited Blackman to ride on a vintage DC-3 to mark his anniversary with the company.
The aircraft, the Flagship Detroit, is owned by a nonprofit foundation that has restored it to a historically accurate approximation of what it looked like when it was in passenger service for American from 1937 to 1947.
Its 21 seats are smaller than 21st-century airline seats, and there are no overhead bins.
Blackman sat in the cockpit as the plane swung around to lower Manhattan, up the Hudson River to the George Washington Bridge and back.
Back on the ground, he said modern jet engines are more reliable than vintage engines like the DC-3's.
"These leak oil all over the place," Blackman said. "When they're not leaking oil, it's not good. They're not running well."
Mustachioed and dapper in his lime-green reflective vest with "crew chief" on the back, Blackman said the industry has changed over the years.
"Today it's all money, banking, CPAs, computers," he said. "But I've yet to see a computer go out and fix anything that we broke."
He shook his head when asked what advice he'd give to someone starting out in his line of work now.
"Most of the big carriers have folded because they couldn't compete," Blackman said. "And those that are still in business outsource a good part of their work. It's tough to make a living in the business today."
Blackman started working for American Export Airlines, which later merged into American. He was drafted into the Army and served two years in Korea, then returned to his mechanic's job in New York.
He and his wife, Delores, had two children; she died last year.
"My dear wife, when she was alive, she used to tell me, 'Go to work, bum,'" he said. "'Go play with your friends.'"