Private Pensions: Airline Plans' Underfunding Illustrates Broader Problems with the Defined Benefit Pension System

GAO-05-108T Published: Oct 07, 2004. Publicly Released: Oct 07, 2004.
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At the same time that "legacy" airlines face tremendous competitive pressures that are contributing to a fundamental restructuring of the airline industry, they face the daunting task of shoring up their underfunded pension plans, which currently are underfunded by an estimated $31 billion. Terminating these pension plans confronts Congress with three policy issues. The most visible is the financial exposure of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), the federal agency that insures private pensions. The agency's single-employer pension program already faces a deficit of an estimated $9.7 billion, and the airline plans present a potential threat to the agency's viability. Second, plan participants and beneficiaries may lose pension benefits due to limits on PBGC guarantees. Finally, airlines that terminate their plans may gain a competitive advantage because such terminations effectively lower overall labor costs. This testimony addresses (1) the situation the airlines are facing today, (2) overall pension developments, and (3) the policy implications of addressing these issues.

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