Another conspiracy theory. United’s bankruptcy threat may be strategic bluster. I’m becoming increasingly of the opinion that the talk of bankruptcy is a tool more than an assessment of the business climate.
United’s employees are the biggest shareholder block. A bankruptcy would liquidate their shares. Current and past employees would see a significant chunk of their net worth wiped out. That’s a pretty good threat to use in order to wring wage concessions out of an employee group: “give up some wages or we’ll wipe out your nest egg.” Not only that, a bankruptcy proceeding would likely result in an end to the employee representation on the United board. Without those threats, there’s not much of a compelling reason for the employees to bargain while they’re under contract. With those threats, there’s a good change that employee groups will agree to lower United’s labor costs.
A threat of bankruptcy carries the added benefit of helping make the case for the government for a $1.8 billion loan guarantee. By arguing that they’re on the verge of bankruptcy, they make the case that they need assistance more. The government will be hard pressed to deny the funds and be blamed for the nation’s second largest airline entering chapter 11.
United has $2.7 billion in cash and $3 billion in aircraft that it owns outright. It’s losing money in a way that isn’t sustainable, but this isn’t a company that can’t make payroll. It needs to lower its cost and it needs to shift its business model to bring in more revenue. They may well throw themselves into chapter 11 to reduce their costs — but, I believe, only if the strategy of using the threat as a stalking horse for concessions and loans doesn’t pan out.