Isakson Asks Congress to Back Pensions for Workers at Delta

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson next week will try to persuade a reluctant Congress to support Delta and other economically strapped airlines by giving them more time to raise money for worker pensions.

Normally, Congress is resistant to write legislation targeting only one industry. So, Isakson for now has shelved a separate airline bill he introduced in April and plans to instead push the provisions as part of a larger measure that would overhaul the nation's entire pension system.

Isakson's amendment, if successful, would ask Congress to guarantee airline pension funds for 20 years as the companies attempt to raise the money themselves. That's six years longer than the guarantees other industries would be getting in the bill and five years less than sought by Delta, which filed for bankruptcy earlier this month along with Northwest Airlines.

''If you've got a proposition that gives you the opportunity to save the pensions of hardworking employees and protect the taxpayers from not having to fulfill that obligation, that's a win-win,'' said Isakson, a Republican. ''The taxpayer doesn't get stuck and the company honors its benefits.''

Scott Yohe, a retired Delta officer who is now a consultant for the Georgia-based company, said the airline strongly supports Isakson's efforts. However, Yohe cautioned even with them there are no guarantees that workers will get their full pensions.

A judge could order the release of Delta pensions into the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, the federal agency set up to guarantee retiree pensions. If that happens, workers would almost certainly get less in retirement than they would have received before Delta filed for bankruptcy.

Or, it's conceivable Delta and the other airlines still won't be able to raise the money, even with the 20-year window. Isakson's original measure called for 25 years, and Yohe said the shorter the window, the less likely companies will be able to meet their obligations.

''It's really about trying to find a manageable, affordable schedule of payments,'' Yohe said.

As of Thursday, the entire Georgia delegation except Democratic Rep. Cynthia McKinney had signed onto either Isakson's amendment or a similar bill in the House sponsored by Republican Rep. Tom Price, another Georgian.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., had resisted Isakson's airline-only bill but this week agreed to join the amendment as a co-sponsor.

Price said he was confident Congress would act, particularly considering the rough economic times the airlines have faced since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

''This is not a bailout,'' Price said. ''This is not taxpayer money. This is providing the company the flexibility they need to meet their obligations and therefore protect the taxpayers.''

Although the House still hasn't acted on Price's bill, Democratic Rep. David Scott - a strong supporter - says he thinks the effort will have a better chance at success if the Senate passes Isakson's amendment first.

Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, had been vocal about not giving special treatment to a specific industry, but Scott said he would likely be less resistant if the House gets a bill with Isakson's amendment included.

''It would be great if it comes over here with it in there,'' Scott said. ''That's the cleaner way of doing it.''

Copyright 2005 Associated Press