The board of directors of UAL Corp. yesterday appeared to write the end to the latest attempt by United Airlines Inc. employees to buy the carrier by refusing to consider a new, cash-poor offer for the airline.
While the United Employee Acquisition Corp. vowed to continue to pursue a possible buyout, the current effort had been unraveling for months, along with the health of the airline industry.
The next real drama at United is expected to be at the bargaining table, as all three unions attempt to negotiate new contracts with the management they would have replaced.
Chances for an employee buyout began fading almost as soon as the board voted to approve the effort last April.
After failing to get financing for a $201-a-share offer that the board had approved, the union-led employee group began putting together a less generous offer of approximately $175 a share, with $150 of it in cash.
But by yesterday morning, the best the group could put on the table was a proposal to pay $205 a share, with only $70 in cash, or an alternative plan that offered no cash at the outset.
UAL's board rejected the proposals, saying its shareholders would be better served if the carrier returned to its own strategic plans to build the company under the leadership of Chairman Stephen M. Wolf, to whom the board gave a vote of confidence.
Part of that plan is to move forward on a major aircraft order that has been on hold pending the outcome of the buyout bid by the employee group.
But the board still has to negotiate tricky terrain, including pacifying shareholders who once expected to receive hundreds of dollars for shares now worth considerably less.
UAL stock closed yesterday at $88 a share, down $3.25 a share.
A source described the meeting yesterday as low-key and calm, with the outcome virtually a forgone conclusion.
Gerald Greenwald, who will continue as chief executive of the buyout group, said after the meeting that the group regretted the decision. "We continue to believe that employee ownership is the only answer for employees and stockholders alike," he said. The proposals "will remain available briefly for consideration."
The company's largest shareholder, Coniston Partners, which holds approximately 10 percent of UAL's stock, has said that it might press to replace the board if its members turned down what Coniston deemed a reasonable offer.
Yesterday, however, Gus Oliver, a partner of the investment firm, would say only that the group is studying its options. "We'll see where things go after we complete the process," he said.
While the board may face pressure to appease shareholders through a dividend payment or a stock repurchase program, United will also face pressure at the bargaining table as all three of the carrier's unions attempt to negotiate new contracts.
The unions have indicated they will take a tough stance in negotiations.
The pilots union, which led the buyout effort, is the furthest along in negotiations.
Jim Hanson, a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association at United, said yesterday that the union wants to "make sure we have an industry-leading contract with full retroactivity for our pilots."
The UAL board said it has asked the National Mediation Board to begin expedited mediation with the pilots union.
At the end of the process, it said, UAL would be willing to have outstanding issues submitted to third-party arbitration.