Since 2001 the U.S. airline industry has lost over $30 billion. Delta, Northwest, United, and US Airways have filed for bankruptcy, the latter two terminating and transferring their pension plans to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). The net claim on PBGC from these terminations was $9.7 billion; plan participants lost $5.3 billion in benefits (in constant 2005 dollars). Considerable debate has ensued over airlines' use of bankruptcy protection as a means to continue operations. Many in the industry have maintained that airlines' use of this approach is harmful to the industry. This debate has received even sharper focus with pension defaults. Critics argue that by not having to meet their pension obligations, airlines in bankruptcy have an advantage that may encourage other companies to take the same approach. At the request of the Congress, we have continued to assess the financial condition of the airline industry and focused on the problems of bankruptcy and pension terminations. This report details: (1) the role of bankruptcy in the airline industry, (2) whether bankruptcies are harming the industry, and (3) the effect of airline pension underfunding on employees, airlines, and the PBGC. DOT and PBGC agreed with this report's conclusions. GAO is making no recommendations.
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