Yes, Pensions Did Help Push American Airlines into Bankruptcy

I generally hold John Tamny’s analysis of economic matters in high regard, so I was surprised to find his take on the American Airlines bankruptcy to be oddly lacking.

In his latest Forbes column, Tamny argues that it wasn’t its pension obligations, but monetary policy, specifically the weak dollar, that pushed American Airlines into bankruptcy.

The immediate reason he cites is high fuel prices, which are caused by the fact that oil is priced in dollars in the global market. High fuel prices have hit nearly all airlines hard, not just American. As Tamny himself notes, “Southwest Airlines was one of the few carriers that properly hedged its exposure to fuel prices that were set to go through the roof.”

What does set American Airlines apart is its pension and labor costs.

American’s pension liabilities are so enormous, at $10 billion, that to deny they were a major factor in the airline’s bankruptcy is contrarian to the point of absurdity. Tamny argues that those liabilities didn’t drive American to bankruptcy based on the notion that they would have been reflected in the airline’s stock price. However, that argument fails in the face of the dodgy accounting which many unionized companies with defined benefit pensions apply to those pensions. Information cannot get out into the market when it is suppressed or obscured.

Then there are labor costs, on which American spends $800 million more a year than its main competitors.

Finally, there’s the problem of management decisions that simply go awry. In that regard, last weekend’s interview of Alaska Airlines CEO Bill Ayer in The Wall Street Journal is worth reading. All too often, airlines place too much focus on gaining greater market share—usually through debt-fueled growth—and not enough on common sense strategies such as working to reduce per-mile costs.