US Air Files for Chap. 11 Again
The airline industry’s financial crisis deepened Sunday as cash-strapped US Airways Group Inc., the nation’s seventh-largest carrier, filed for bankruptcy protection for the second time in two years.
The Arlington, Va.-based airline mainly serves the Eastern half of the country, but its service includes 27 daily departures from California, including 11 from Los Angeles and five from San Diego.
Sunday’s filing under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code allows US Airways to continue to operate while restructuring its debt. The company said that customers “should notice no changes to flight operations or customer service” and that its frequent-flier program remained intact.
But industry analysts said that US Airways’ situation was dire and that it was possible the airline’s reorganization would eventually dissolve into a liquidation that would ground the carrier forever.
“I would say it’s 50-50 at this point,” said Ray Neidl, an analyst at Calyon Securities in New York.
If so, it would launch a long-awaited shakeout of the industry, as other big airlines slash costs to survive in today’s low-fare market or exit altogether.
“This is the beginning of the big restructuring of the industry,” Neidl said. “Names will disappear.”
Indeed, US Airways’ filing means that two of the nation’s largest airlines are flying in bankruptcy -- No. 2 United Airlines has been in reorganization for 18 months. Third-ranked Delta Air Lines is dangerously close to seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection as well.
All are suffering because they have labor contracts and other operating costs, along with enormous debts, that are far too high to be covered by today’s declining ticket prices.
Passenger traffic is strong industrywide and planes are flying relatively full. But travelers increasingly are turning to low-cost, low-fare airlines and demanding similar prices from their larger rivals, which is driving fares down across the board.
Under Chapter 11, a company continues operating but past debts are effectively frozen. The company is protected from creditors’ lawsuits for payment while it works out a restructuring plan that must be approved by both creditors and the court. Creditors often see repayment of only a few cents on the dollar.
If US Airways does liquidate, taxpayers could find themselves on the hook. When the airline emerged from its previous bankruptcy in March 2003, it obtained a $900-million loan guarantee from the federal Air Transportation Stabilization Board, which was set up after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to help the airlines.
The ATSB said Sunday that it would “continue to work with US Airways as it seeks to restructure, and will work with the bankruptcy court to ensure that the taxpayers’ interests are protected.”
The ATSB otherwise was stingy in granting loan guarantees to the carriers, and the major airlines that didn’t get federal backing also have continued to rapidly deteriorate. The airlines collectively have lost $27 billion in the last three years.
Bob Cowen, publisher of InternetTravelTips.com, predicted that US Airways wouldn’t survive another reorganization.
“I think it’s over for them,” he said. “People will shy away from them for any advance tickets,” and US Airways’ high cost structure “just doesn’t cut it in today’s marketplace.”
All the airlines have suffered from external shocks in recent years, from the plunge in travel after the Sept. 11 attacks to this year’s surge in fuel prices. But the big airlines such as US Airways and United also are being hurt by the rapid growth of discount airlines such as Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways.
The discount carriers’ expansion has meant that the traditional airlines must match the cheaper fares or watch their passengers flee to low-price rivals.
But the big airlines’ labor expenses and other operating costs are much higher than those of the low-cost carriers. So while JetBlue might turn a profit by charging $199 from point A to point B, US Airways or United might lose money at that price.
The big airlines have tried to respond by slashing expenses in the last three years, including labor costs. US Airways sought an additional $800 million in savings from its 28,000 employees -- including 375 in California -- to help cut costs, which are among the highest in the business.
Its pilots and other labor groups resisted the latest call for cuts, saying they had sacrificed enough the last time US Airways filed for bankruptcy protection. But the airline was nearly out of time to strike a deal. Loan payments and other obligations due in the next two weeks helped prompt Sunday’s filing. The company listed $8.81 billion in assets and $8.7 billion in debt.
“With cash obligations quickly coming due and the potential for defaults with some creditors imminent, the Chapter 11 filing became necessary to preserve cash,” especially as the airline enters the slower fall and winter months, US Airways said.
Fred Freshwater, a representative of the Air Line Pilots Assn. union who opposed management’s latest contract offer, said he wasn’t surprised that US Airways and labor couldn’t prevent the Chapter 11 filing.
“When you look at the behavior of management, when you look at their proposals, they were seeking the total capitulation of labor,” Freshwater said.
US Airways said the Bankruptcy Court would help it in “reaching new labor agreements.”
The airline noted that its employees and suppliers would continue to be paid.
The airline has hub airports in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Charlotte, N.C. US Airways and its US Airways Express regional unit have 3,300 daily flights. The airline also operates shuttle service connecting Boston, New York and Washington.
US Airways serves 37 states and major cities in Europe and the Caribbean. It flies about 47 million passengers each year and has a fleet of 282 aircraft.
The airline traces its roots to 1939 and the early days of the old Allegheny Airlines. After the airline industry was deregulated in 1978, Allegheny changed its name to USAir. In 1987, it acquired California-based Pacific Southwest Airlines, which many people knew simply as PSA.
USAir also bought Piedmont Airlines, which mainly served the mid-Atlantic region, and it adopted the US Airways name in 1997. Those acquisitions contributed to US Airways’ problems, causing employee- and aircraft-integration woes that added to the high operating costs that saddle the carrier to this day.
Already suffering from heavy debt, high operating costs and massive losses, US Airways was the carrier most severely damaged in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. In August 2002, it filed for bankruptcy protection.
As US Airways emerged from that bankruptcy, the Retirement Systems of Alabama public pension plan became its largest stockholder, but its $240-million investment is at risk as the airline goes through another reorganization.
The filing was a “difficult but necessary decision,” David Bronner, the plan’s chief executive and US Airways’ non-executive chairman, said in a statement.
The history of airlines surviving a bankruptcy reorganization is mixed. Pan American Airways and Eastern Air Lines stopped flying in 1991, but Continental Airlines and America West Airlines emerged from Chapter 11 and are still flying.
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History of US Airways
* 1939: All American Aviation brings the first airmail service to many small western Pennsylvania and Ohio Valley communities.
* 1953: Now known as All American Airways, the carrier adds routes and changes its name to Allegheny Airlines.
* 1979: Allegheny changes its name to USAir to reflect its expanding network.
* 1997: USAir changes its name to US Airways Group Inc.
* May 24, 2000: United Airlines parent UAL Corp. announces an agreement to buy US Airways for $4.3 billion.
* July 27, 2001: US Airways and United call off their merger after the Justice Department says it would sue to block it.
* Sept. 11, 2001: Terrorist attacks ground the airline industry. The largest carrier at Reagan National Airport, US Airways suffers added financial harm as the airport nearest the nation’s capital is shut for an additional three weeks because of security concerns.
* Aug. 11, 2002: US Airways files for bankruptcy protection after a $2-billion loss in 2001.
* March 31, 2003: US Airways emerges from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, shedding $2 billion in operating costs.
* Sept. 12, 2004: US Airways files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for a second time.
Times staff writer Julie Tamaki contributed to this report.