Just when matters seemed like they couldn't grow much worse for Eastern Air Lines, it appears they have.
Fuel prices are rising, a deteriorating economy is making it difficult to sell off assets, and next week the carrier faces a $95 million payment to its pension fund that threatens to further deplete its dwindling cash reserves.
Although heavy discounting on ticket prices and aggressive marketing have lured more travelers to Eastern, its fuel costs have risen to nearly 90 cents from 57 cents a gallon in June. Losses for the year are now projected at $510.5 million.
Ironically, the same economic forces that complicate Eastern's chances for survival also make it less attractive for its creditors to shut down the airline. In recent months, as a result of the economic slowdown throughout the airline industry, the value of Eastern's remaining assets has dropped dramatically, since few airlines are looking for ways to expand when they can't fill the planes they already have.
As an example, Eastern is in the process of selling two DC-10 widebodied jets. But so far, the only bidder is Continental Airlines, a subsidiary of Eastern's parent company, Continental Holdings.
"A year ago people were champing at the bit to buy this type of aircraft," said an Eastern spokeswoman. Now, with the industry in recession, she said "it's safe to say we're not being inundated with offers."
Adding to the problem is the fact that most of Eastern's equipment is older and less fuel efficient. Many of Eastern's best assets have already been sold, the last major transaction being the sale of its Latin American routes to American Airlines. Eastern received the last cash infusion from that $300 million transaction two weeks ago. Barring liquidation, no other major sales appear in the works.
The immediate problem, however, is its pension payment. If Eastern can't pay the bill, Continental Airlines and its parent Continental Holdings will be stuck with the payment under an agreement reached in April when a trustee was appointed by the bankruptcy court to take over the day-to-day operations of the airline.
The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., in a statement yesterday, said "progress is being made, but there is no final solution... . We expect the companies to live up to their pension obligations." The agency said that if Eastern fails to make the payment deadline, liens will automatically be filed against Continental Holdings and Continental Airlines.
In addition to the $95 million owed next week, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. estimates Eastern's pension plan is under-funded by $800 million. The agency said yesterday, however, that "the plan's assets are ample to pay benefits."
Eastern officials said yesterday that the airline's financial condition was improving. Spokeswoman Karen Ceremsak said its yield has risen from 10.78 cents per revenue passenger mile in the first quarter of this year to 11.58 cents in the second quarter. She said airline flights were approximately 70 percent full in August thanks in part to the carrier's ability to win over some additional business travelers.
The airline plans to announce what Ceremsak described as another major marketing campaign within the next two weeks in an effort to attract additional, higher-paying business passengers.
Eastern's discounting of fares to attract passengers has put additional strains on its competitors, which already are struggling to recover higher costs in a depressed market.
Although Eastern Trustee Martin Shugrue has repeatedly said that he hopes to rebuild the tattered carrier as a viable airline, he has also held talks with potential buyers, including Northwest Airlines. Although those talks are said to be continuing, they appear to be on a slow track.
The other option would be to liquidate the airline and sell its assets, but the value of those assets -- particularly its older, fuel-inefficient aircraft -- is declining. According to one assessment quoted by airline analysts, the value of some equipment being put up as collateral for debt has declined in value by 16 percent between January and June, even before the current fuel crisis.