By Joe Brancatelli
June 10, 2008 --Pick through the slag heap of the nation's big network carriers and it's easy to find the worst of the worst: United Airlines.

Just 29 months removed from the longest, costliest, and least-effective bankruptcy in aviation history, the nation's second-largest airline is once again facing a financial abyss. United's first-quarter net loss of $537 million was more than its two main competitors combined. Last month it paid a huge premium to avoid a default on its loan covenants. Its 4 percent decline in passenger traffic in May was twice as steep as that of any of its competitors. Last week's announcement that it would ground 100 aircraft, reduce capacity by 10 percent, and shed thousands more workers was startling given the huge contraction it already experienced while in bankruptcy. A 19-month search for a merger partner resulted in rejections from Continental Airlines and US Airways, a carrier that was desperate to sell itself to United just eight years ago. The airline's shares slid into single digits last week from a 52-week high north of $50.

United's day-to-day operations have also deteriorated markedly. Its no-frills Ted sub-brand is being closed, the airline's second expensive failure in the low-cost arena this decade. Travelers are furious about service cuts—the airline has eliminated some meals and some luxurious perks—on United's high-priced P.S. (for premium service), which runs in the high-profile Transcon Triangle between New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. And in April, United's overall on-time performance slumped to 72.7 percent, five points below the industry average and 18th among the 19 carriers tracked by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

United's woes since the 1978 deregulation of the airlines are legendary. A mid-1980s pilots strike dragged on for almost a month. United failed as a travel conglomerate called Allegis in the late 1980s and ended up selling off all the hotel chains and car-rental interests it purchased. A flawed Employee Stock Ownership Plan in the 1990s tainted the entire concept of employee ownership of public companies. A merger attempt with US Airways in 2000 became a nationwide scandal after it was revealed that top managers at the carriers would have reaped hundreds of millions of dollars on the deal. A concurrent civil war with its own employees led to weeks when 75 percent of United flights ran late and passengers and baggage were stranded for days in distant locations. Then came 9/11, when two United jets were hijacked by terrorists.

But it was United's collapse into bankruptcy just before Christmas of 2002 that is at the heart of the airline's current crisis. Despite a 38-month stay, hundreds of millions of dollars of employee concession, and the largest pension default in corporate history, United emerged as a fiscal and operational mess. Worse, the airline's new chief executive, Glenn Tilton, a former oil-company executive, embraced every old, failed idea ever tried by big network carriers.

Instead of a simple, cost-effective and passenger-friendly roster of in-flight services and streamlined fleet operations, United left bankruptcy in February 2006 with 26 separate in-flight seat configurations. It dabbled in everything from the upmarket P.S. to the downmarket Ted. It had four types of narrow-body jets, three types of wide-body aircraft and eight flavors of regional jets. Travelers were confronted with flights outfitted with an ever-shifting mix of one, two, three, or even four classes. (By contrast, the industry's only consistently profitable airline, Southwest, flies just one type of aircraft and offers just one class of service.) United's finances were equally chaotic. It left bankruptcy saddled with $17 billion in debt and its $3 billion exit financing was secured with mortgages on virtually all of the airline's assets.

And oil is the original sin at the post-bankruptcy United. The five-year plan of reorganization (P.O.R.) cooked up by Tilton and chief financial officer Frederic "Jake" Brace predicted crude would average $50 a barrel. It was laughable even then. When United filed the P.O.R. in February 2006, oil was already selling above $65 a barrel—and a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, had just discussed the ramifications of $120-a-barrel crude.

As a result, United's future as a going concern is an open question. One thing that isn't in doubt, however, is the financial wherewithal of the airline's upper management.

Tilton and his top executives emerged from the bankruptcy with 8 percent of the new United Airlines and a fast-vesting bonus plan that the New York Times called "insanity squared." Many of United's management team have been flipping their shares as soon as they vested, yielding tidy profits as the airline's shares topped out above $50. But rather than curb their enthusiasm now that the market has soured on the airlines in general and United in specific, Tilton et al will pitch a new executive-incentive plan at the airline's annual meeting in California on Thursday. If approved, it will create 8 million new shares for the benefit of the top brass.

In other words, no matter how rough the ride for United's employees and passengers, it will continue to be smooth sailing in the executive suite.

The Fine Print…
A follow-up to last week's column on all-business airlines. The British administrators of grounded Silverjet have received offers from several private investors to buy and relaunch the airline. And Marc Rochet, chief executive of L'Avion, the all-business carrier that flies between Newark, New Jersey, and Paris, has told Portfolio.com that his airline is filling 80 percent of its seats and has sufficient cash to continue flying without disruption.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2008 Condé Nast Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.