Is US Airways Grounded?

Will it be Bama Air after all?

For weeks, US Airways (Nasdaq: UAIR  ) has warned of the possibility of a second bankruptcy. Chairman David Bronner even raised the specter of liquidation, jokingly telling TheNew York Times last month that investors might be better off if the airline disbanded and started over as a low-cost carrier named after his home state of Alabama. At least one of those outcomes is now certain. Sunday, the carrier announced it would re-enter Chapter 11 bankruptcy and attempt to reorganize.

The announcement comes on the heels of the third anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a day notable not just for the human cost but too for the havoc it wreaked throughout the American economy. Major airlines, already showing signs of weakness, suffered a mighty blow that day and have yet to see a full recovery. US Airways was a major beneficiary of the federal group formed to aid ailing airlines, securing more than $1 billion in loan guarantees and major employee concessions that cut costs by $1.2 billion annually before exiting bankruptcy in March of last year.

But in the end none of it was enough, and now the carrier is in hock again.

The question now isn't really whether additional relief will help the airline succeed, but who's next? Delta (NYSE: DAL  ) is already on the brink of its own Chapter 11 filing; UAL Corp's United (OTC BB: UALAQ) is trying anything to save itself, including potentially canceling pensions; and even Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick JetBlue Airways (Nasdaq: JBLU  ) has run into trouble, saying the procession of storms through the Southwest and the Caribbean combined with higher fuel prices could hurt its earnings.

History suggests Chapter 7 liquidation is the likely next step for US Airways. Indeed, in the '90s there were several airline bankruptcies, with only Continental (NYSE: CAL  ) emerging successfully after a second filing. So, should US Airways even try to rescue itself this time?

Think about it: Would shutting down the nation's seventh-largest carrier really be such a tragedy? On a human level, yes, undoubtedly. The sting of more displaced workers wouldn't be easily sedated. And yet, on paper, US Airways has been a net destroyer of shareholder value for years. The owners -- that is, the shareholders -- have every right to say enough is enough.

Bronner, an investor himself who earned control of US Airways after buying a 37% stake through $240 million from the Alabama state pension fund he runs, might have said it best for investors during the Times interview: "It's a whole lot cheaper for me to have the assets and start over than to have the liabilities."

Painful? Yes. Callous? You bet. True? Yeah, probably.

What do you think? Should US Airways continue to fight or shut off its engines for good? Can anyone make money in the airline business? Will the so-called low-cost carriers be next? Debate all this and more at the Airlines discussion board. Only at Fool.com.

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


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