United's pension woes: sign of bigger issue
Ailing airline may end all of its pension plans, creating the biggest default in US history and forcing a possible bailout.
Despite ongoing negotiations with its unions, United Airlines has told the bankruptcy court that the "likely result" will be a decision to terminate all of its pension plans.Skip to next paragraph
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That would precipitate the biggest pension default in history, more twice the size of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation default in 2002. The move is expected to destabilize the already struggling airline industry, prompting other old-line carriers like Delta to eventually follow suit to maintain competitiveness.
It would also put additional pressure on the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC,) the federal agency that insures traditional pensions in case companies go belly up. It's already facing more than a $9 billion shortfall. A default by United would saddle it with an additional $8.4 billion in unfunded obligations. If other airlines follow, the PBGC may have to go to Congress and plead for a bailout that some experts say would be bigger than the Savings and Loan debacle of the 1980s.
More broadly, what all this means is that retirement for US workers just isn't what it used to be. Forget the gold watch and reliable pension check after 30 years of service. The impact of globalization and competition from low-wage companies that don't provide benefits has shifted the onus of retirement security from larger firms onto individuals.
Twenty years ago, 40 percent of American workers were covered by traditional pensions known as defined-benefit plans. Today that number's dropped to 20 percent. As the Bethlehem Steel and United examples show, even that 20 percent may not be able to count on what they've been promised. Currently, about 75 percent of those corporate plans are underfunded. "There are numerous threats to retirement in the future," says Brad Belt, executive director of the PBGC. "So it's incumbent on individuals to be well informed, prudent about their investments, and to save accordingly."
To get a sense of the impact of the pension crisis on individuals, look at what United employees can expect. Pilots, who by law must retire at 60, could see their retirement income cut by 75 percent.
Betty, who asked that her name not be used, has been flying for United for 26 years. She was expecting to retire with $140,000 a year. After the recent round of give-backs, that was cut to $90,000. But if United defaults as expected, she'd receive only $28,000 from the PBGC. If she waits until 65 to start collecting, she could be eligible for as much $44,500 a year.
Either way, once pilots are forced to leave the cockpit at 60, most will probably look for another job rather than lounge on the golf course. Betty has already started a mediation business on the side. "All of the benefits that I'd been promised during those 26 years have been erased by corporate American greed," she says. "And yet I can see the big picture. I've said for three years that our pensions are history. No matter how many promises they make us, if the money isn't there, it isn't there."