Proud legacy marred: American Airlines files for bankruptcy

As the parent company of American Airlines proceeds with bankruptcy protection, some of the airline’s 78,000 workers almost certainly will be out of a job or face cuts in their pay or pensions.

Olivier Douliery

American Airlines used to bill itself as "something special in the air" -- and it was.

It was the first airline to offer curbside check-in. The first with computerized reservations. It invented the frequent-flier program and came up with the deeply discounted Super Saver fare to fill empty seats on its planes.

But it was disastrously behind on one thing -- recognizing that its finances were unsustainable.

In the past decade, other airlines cut expenses in bankruptcy reorganizations. American plodded along with high labor costs and aging, gas-guzzling jets. Other airlines found merger partners. American was the awkward kid at the school dance.

American was left with little spare cash to make improvements or take risks. The money ran out, and on Tuesday the time did too. American filed for bankruptcy reorganization.

"They were the most innovative airline for years. Nobody could touch them," said George Hobica of Airfare Watchdog, a site that alerts fliers to discount fares. "They're a shadow of their former self."

Some of American's 78,000 workers almost certainly will lose their jobs or face pay or pension cuts. Creditors will lose money. Stockholders will be wiped out.

The bankruptcy is a black mark for American, which traces its routes to carrying mail for the government in the 1920s and was, in the decades since, a pioneer in the nation's skies.

After World War II, Pan Am and TWA dominated international routes, while American and United focused on the domestic skies. In 1948 American rolled out coach seats and family fare plans to make flying economical.

Nine years later came the world's first facility dedicated to flight attendant training. Two years later American became the first airline to offer nonstop, coast-to-coast jet service with the Boeing 707. Flying time: Five hours, about the same as today.

Shine time

But it wasn't until the 1970s that American and its iconic silver jets really started to shine. The carrier introduced routes to the Caribbean and expanded its computer reservation system to travel agents.

The system, known as Sabre, later became the guts for Travelocity and remains in wide use.

Passengers in the '70s were lured by ads promoting "the luxury fleet" and promising them "the best of everything."

They also got cheap fares. Super Saver fares made American the first to figure out how to fill empty seats.

They also led to the divide between business fares and cheaper, book-in-advance leisure fares that exists to this day.

In 1978 the government deregulated the industry, leaving the airlines to set their own routes and prices.

American responded by developing the cost-efficient hub-and-spoke system we know today. Millions of passengers were suddenly changing planes in Dallas or Chicago to get to their destination.

"There was a culture of perfection, high-quality standards and innovation," said Thomas Kiernan, who spent 33 years at American before leaving in 2000 as a senior vice president.

To reward loyalty and keep customers from straying to new competitors like Southwest, American launched the AAdvantage program in 1981, the industry's first mileage rewards.

That kind of promotion was a hallmark of the CEO at the time, Robert Crandall. Deregulation required more clever marketing by the airlines, which previously had little need for it.

Crandall found creative ways to cut costs too. He is known for a 1987 decision to remove one olive from each salad. The reasoning: Passengers wouldn't notice, and the airline would save $40,000 a year.

Crandall also preserved the company's distinctive look. The planes were polished but not painted. "No paint means less weight," he once explained. The unpainted look, he said, keeps "the sun glinting off our 'silver birds.' "

Deep in debt

As other airlines failed in the 1980s and '90s, American grew. It took over Eastern's Latin America routes and built up a hub in Miami. The demise of Pan Am and TWA left American and United as de facto national airlines, carrying the flag for the U.S. in the sky.

That prominence was perverted on Sept. 11, 2001. It was an American Airlines jet, an unpainted Boeing 767 with red, white and blue stripes down the side, that sliced into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

The jet that hit the Pentagon was American's too, Flight 77. The second plane to hit the trade center and the aircraft that crashed in Pennsylvania belonged to United, which filed for bankruptcy in 2002.

Delta, Northwest and US Airways all headed to bankruptcy court too in the years after the attacks. Out of pride or a sense of responsibility, American held off. The competition slashed salaries, shrank pensions and got its loans refinanced.

Delta merged with Northwest. United joined with Continental. Both surpassed American in size.

American's workers made concessions, but it wasn't enough. The airline, now in third place, was unable to merge with US Airways or anyone else.

In the past few months, American announced ambitious plans to replace its fleet with fuel-efficient planes. But those jets will take years to arrive. The airline was burning through cash in the meantime and couldn't reach an agreement with its pilots union.

By Tuesday, AMR Corp., American's parent company, had $29.6 billion in debt and only $24.7 billion in assets. Thomas Horton, who will replace Gerard Arpey as CEO, said American will probably cut flights "modestly" while it reorganizes.

The frequent-flier program, American promises, will be untouched. Many experts predict American will emerge stronger, though it is too early to say when and how.