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United gets $3 billion in exit financing offers

United Airlines' parent company said Thursday it has secured new commitments from banks for up to $3 billion in debt financing that should enable it to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy by late 2005 or early 2006.
/ Source: The Associated Press

United Airlines' parent company said Thursday it has secured new commitments from banks for up to $3 billion in debt financing that should enable it to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy by late 2005 or early 2006.

While the financing is not yet final, UAL Corp. hailed the revised proposals from its main lenders as a strong endorsement of the new business plan it formulated this summer even as the steep increase in fuel prices continues to squeeze carriers' bottom lines.

The commitments from the four financiers — Citibank, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Deutsche Bank and GE Commercial Finance — were disclosed as the Elk Grove Village, Ill.-based airline updated its status in a filing with federal bankruptcy court.

Chief Financial Officer Jake Brace said the fact the lenders are willing to provide more than the $2.5 billion United sought testifies to the resilience of its new business plan even amid daunting conditions for airlines. He said United is continuing to negotiate the cost and terms of the financing, but has fully underwritten offers in hand that it could put into place now if it so chose.

"This validates our business plan and demonstrates that despite the fact that the industry environment has gotten tougher, the United business plan can attract even more all-debt exit financing than it could last winter," Brace said in an interview.

The banks had tentatively agreed in January to provide up to $2.5 billion in debt financing, but that was before soaring fuel prices forced United to devise a new business plan. Oil prices, now topping $67 a barrel, have risen more than 50 percent since the start of the year.

The latest evidence of the industry's financial hemorrhaging came in a separate announcement Thursday when United said it registered a $274 million net loss for July. That pushed its losses to $2.8 billion this year and more than $7 billion since it entered bankruptcy in December 2002.

United has not yet publicly disclosed its new business plan or laid out its strategy for returning to profitability for the first time since 2000. Brace said only that it would be filed in the "not too distant future" with its plan of reorganization.

The company attributed the latest monthly loss to $350 million in reorganization expenses — mostly from renegotiating leases on some of its aircraft. It said its monthly operating profit more than doubled to $113 million from $51 million a year earlier, despite fuel costs that increased by $127 million. Passenger unit revenue rose 9 percent over July 2004.

CEO Glenn Tilton told employees that the improved operating earnings, coupled with the financing commitments, "show just how far we have come at United."

"Our business plan is viable and financeable and has the full support of the banks," he said in a recorded message. "This financing will enable us to exit and to compete effectively in this industry."

Besides nailing down the financing, United still must resolve the status of 14 airplane leases after settling lengthy disputes over the leases on another 105 jets. It also is seeking to extend by two months, until Nov. 1, management's exclusive right to file a reorganization plan for the company. Both issues are expected to be addressed at United's monthly bankruptcy court hearing Friday.

Despite its long streak of money-losing, airline analyst Mike Mooney said United remains a worthy investment risk for the banks because of several strengths: its international route network, strong U.S. hub structure, long-term labor deals in place and the shedding of its multibillion-dollar pension obligations.

"It's a tough business right now, and certainly one can critique the overall success of United's management team — the amount of time they've spent in bankruptcy," said Mooney of the Boyd Group in Evergreen, Colo. "But United has a beautiful franchise. The banks see the opportunity to step in on that, which puts them in a very preferred position assuming there is a successful emergence."