Roadblock in Delta's bankruptcy proceedings

/ Source: The Associated Press

Delta Air Lines Inc.'s quest for another round of wage cuts from its pilots has hit some turbulence in an unlikely place — the bankruptcy court.

The court is often a friend to the debtor, helping it wipe away obligations and restructure leases. But the court is now being asked by the government's influential pension insurer and some retired pilots to nix the concessions deal the company and pilots union recently reached.

The dual objections have raised questions about whether the court will approve the deal, which Delta says would save it $280 million a year, at a hearing Wednesday in New York.

"The case does involve an important federal agency where an awful lot of money is at stake," bankruptcy lawyer William Rochelle said. "I know whoever wins, I expect the loser to appeal."

The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. believes it should get the $650 million note the company has promised the pilots if Delta terminates their pension plan. It also wants the $2.1 billion unsecured claim the pilots have been promised.

Separately, the retired pilots group has objected out of concern the deal would ultimately reduce their benefits based on the pension being terminated.

If the deal is not approved, that could spell trouble for the nation's third-largest carrier.

That's because an arbitration panel would resume consideration of the company's request to reject its pilot contract so it can unilaterally impose the cuts it wants. The active pilots have vowed to strike if their contract is voided, and the company has said a strike would put it out of business.

The same day as the court hearing, Delta's rank-and-file pilots will complete their voting on the concessions agreement, which includes an initial 14 percent pay cut and assurances the union won't fight the company's likely plan to terminate the pilots' pension.

The court has the final say.

Underscoring what both sides stand to lose without a deal, Delta's chief executive, Gerald Grinstein, sent a letter to pilots Friday assuring them that the company will aggressively fight the objections, singling out the one by the PBGC in particular.

"Without this deal, Delta Air Lines is at grave risk and the PBGC — and potentially the U.S. taxpayer and all of our employees — will lose out in the long run if this company is put in jeopardy as a result of their objection," Grinstein wrote.

The Air Line Pilots Association, which represents Delta's 5,930 active pilots, has said the agreement reached last month is in the best interest of the airline, its pilots and its creditors. The cuts are in addition to $1 billion in annual concessions the pilots agreed to in a five-year deal in 2004.

The PBGC made a similar objection during the bankruptcy case of UAL Corp.'s United Airlines, but dropped its opposition to the Elk Grove Village, Ill.-based airline's plan to terminate its employees' pension plans after reaching a settlement with the company that promised the agency up to $1.5 billion in notes and convertible stock in the reorganized company.

In the Delta case, the agency is concerned because if a pension plan is terminated without sufficient assets to pay all of its promised benefits, the PBGC becomes trustee of the plan and is responsible for paying participants their pension benefits up to a certain limit. Delta's pilots' pension plan is significantly underfunded.

Rochelle said it's possible the PBGC could reach a settlement with Delta, as it did in the United case. It's not clear, however, if either side would be willing to do that.

"What I don't know is what are the marching orders in the executive department of the government," Rochelle said. "Maybe they don't want to continually settle these things and instead get a definitive ruling and go to the Supreme Court if they need to."

As for the retired pilots, they say the concessions agreement is improper because they believe it goes beyond what is necessary to help Delta successfully reorganize. They also allege in their objection that Delta failed to negotiate the agreement "so as to treat fairly and equitably all creditors and affected parties."

In his letter to active pilots, Grinstein defended the deal, especially the company's willingness to give the pilots the huge note and unsecured claim.

"Without these terms, there would not have been a deal," Grinstein wrote.