US Airways Off Course, Again

Remember the 1980s movie Wall Street, starring Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen? For those who don't know, here's a recap: To impress financier Gordon Gecko, played by Douglas, Sheen's Bud Fox provides inside information about fictional BlueStar Airlines. The tip increases Gecko's fortune and launches Fox into his inner circle. But then Gecko decides he can clean up further by acquiring a controlling interest in and then liquidating BlueStar, for whom Fox's father, ironically played by Martin Sheen, works. I won't ruin the ending for you, but it's enough to say that there are twists and turns in the plot to destroy the fledgling carrier.

Fast-forward to now. As reported in yesterday's New York Times,US Airways (Nasdaq: UAIR  ) chairman David Bronner said the airline's employees must accept more than $800 million in salary and benefit cuts in the next 30 days for the company to avoid liquidation. The timing relates to covenants it must meet in federally backed loans that secure agreements with aircraft lenders.

The liquidation threat seems genuine. Although Bronner is no Gordon Gecko, his chairmanship came through more than $240 million invested through Alabama's pension fund, which he runs. That money helped US Airways emerge from Chapter 11 reorganization last year, but the cost was giving the pensioner a controlling 37% stake and voting control over eight of the airline's 15 board seats.

Further, Bronner is on record as saying he will invest no more money in US Airways without major concessions from its unions. And talking with the Times, he remarked that investors, including his pension fund, now might do better if the airline filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and then they picked up its assets on the cheap to start anew.

Indeed, US Airways has been losing altitude for months, and liquidation may be its most realistic option. Will it happen? Maybe. Remember, in the early 1990s there were three high-profile airline liquidations: Pan Am, Eastern, and Braniff. The Pan Am fire sale back then was a huge boost to strugglingUAL's United.

But with AMR's (NYSE: AMR  ) American begging for spare change and Delta (NYSE: DAL  ) on the verge of bankruptcy, I can't see anyone coming in to pick up the pieces if US Airways shuts off its engines for good. Indeed, I see it only leaving more opportunity for the low-fare carriers, notably Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick JetBlue (Nasdaq: JBLU  ) .

Perhaps Douglas' Gecko was right. In famously quipping "greed is good," Gecko was noting that some companies just aren't built to compete and need to be taken apart to make room for those that can. Sadly, that maxim is as true as ever in the airline industry today.

For more about the struggles of some airlines, see:

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Fool contributor Tim Beyers owns no interest in any of the companies mentioned, although he has family members who are now retired from United Airlines. You can view Tim's Fool profile here.


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