Airline Pensions: A Vanishing Act?

Only two major airlines - American and Continental - have active defined-benefit pension plans, according to a June report by Congress' Government Accountability Office.

All other major carriers have either terminated all or some of their defined-benefit retirement plans and turned their assets over to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., the government agency that insures pension benefits, or have frozen their plans and quit making contributions, the GAO said.

When a plan is frozen, no more benefits accumulate for its participants, but assets and liabilities can change.

_Delta Air Lines Inc. has frozen all of its pension plans. Delta says its pilot and non-pilot pension plans are underfunded by $6.37 billion. The PBGC estimated in September that Delta's pensions are underfunded by $10.6 billion. Delta has notified PBGC that it intends to terminate its pilots' pension plan as of Sept. 2. A bankruptcy court would have to approve that. Delta has lobbied for the pension bill in Congress, but has offered no assurances it will maintain its non-pilot pension plans if the bill becomes law.

_Northwest Airlines Corp. has frozen its pension plans and reported that they are underfunded by $3.7 billion. The PBGC estimated last September that Northwest's pension plans were underfunded by $5.7 billion.

_Continental Airlines Inc. reported at the end of 2005 that its pension plans were underfunded by $1.2 billion, an amount that decreased from $1.6 billion the prior year. The airline has frozen its pilots' pension plan.

_American Airlines, a unit of AMR Corp., reported that its pension plans were underfunded by $2.3 billion as of Dec. 31, 2005.

Continental and American haven't filed for bankruptcy and PBGC hasn't publicly estimated their pension liabilities. A PBGC estimate of a plan's underfunding normally doesn't become public until the agency files a claim in bankruptcy cases.

Two carriers - United, part of UAL Corp., and US Airways Group Inc. - have already turned their pension plans over to the PBGC after declaring bankruptcy.

US Airways eliminated its three employee pension plans in March 2003. United Airlines dropped its four employee plans in December 2004. PBGC assumed about $10 billion in underfunded pension liabilities from the two airlines.

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