Government takes over underfunded US Airways pension plan for pilots

Tuesday, April 1st 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The government's pension protection program assumed control Tuesday of US Airways pilots' underfunded pension plan, but only will fund about half of the losses.

That means significant cuts in retirement pensions for the 6,000 pilots of US Airways, which emerged from bankruptcy protection a day earlier. The pension issue was the remaining hurdle for the airline's restructuring.

The plan, which has $1.2 billion in assets, was underfunded by $2.5 billion. The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. will add about $600 million to help pay benefits.

``I'm sympathetic toward the US Airways pilots who will lose some of the pension benefits they were promised,'' said Steven A. Kandarian, PBGC's executive director. ``To prevent this from happening to other workers, pension plans need to be funded in a way that better protects the benefits participants have earned.''

Federal law sets a maximum benefit of $43,977.24 for retirees enrolled in pension plans that terminate this year and are taken over by the government program. Retirees and people close to retirement can receive more.

Most pilots' retirement pensions would have ranged from $50,000 to $70,000 in the company pension plan,

US Airways said it will replace that retirement plan with a smaller, less generous program. Those benefits will be paid to pilots to help supplement their losses from the government takeover of the old plan.

On Monday, US Airways won approval for a $900 million loan backed by the government and emerged from bankruptcy after eight months. The airline will save an estimated $600 million in the next seven years under the new pension plan.

The pilots' pension plan is the PBGC's sixth-largest claim in its 28-year history. Four of the 10 largest claims are from airlines.

Overall, the airline industry accounts for 17 percent of PBGC's claims, but less than 2 percent of all private pensioners. Only the steel industry's claims are larger.

PBGC, which posted a record $3.6 billion deficit last year, receives no funds from taxpayers and is financed by insurance premiums set by Congress and paid by employers. The agency also gets its funding from the pension plans it takes over.

Kandarian has said the agency may be forced to seek higher premiums from employers. He also is urging Congress to rewrite pension laws to require some companies to increase their contribution levels to their retirement programs.

But at least one lawmaker said he is concerned that PBGC is spending too much money on administrative costs when an increasing number of employer-provided pensions are going broke.

A General Accounting Office study, requested by Sen. John Breaux, D-La., said the PBGC's administrative costs last year were $225 million. About 95 percent of those costs were for expenses beyond those limited by Congress.