For Eastern Air Lines, the bankruptcy process that saved so many other companies failed.
When a crippling strike forced the carrier to file for bankruptcy protection nearly two years ago, it had one purpose in mind: to come up with a plan to pay off its creditors and keep flying.
That didn't happen. At midnight Friday, the Miami-based airline landed its last flights, marking an end to the nation's eighth-largest carrier.
Creditors may lose more than $1 billion, 19,000 Eastern employees will lose their jobs and the public has lost yet another travel option in the increasingly fragile airline industry.
"I don't think anybody won," said Harvey R. Miller, one of Eastern's attorneys in the early stages of the bankruptcy process. "It's very unfortunate. But not every Chapter 11 case is successful."
A combination of factors contributed to the failure of Eastern's bankruptcy plan, legal experts said, not the least of which was the cast of strong-willed characters whose egos became entangled in the process.
Among them were Frank Lorenzo, head of Eastern Air Lines Inc., whose bitter fight with the unions brought on the bankruptcy filing; Burton R. Lifland, the controversial New York bankruptcy judge who some say should have kept a tighter hold on the company's purse strings; and Martin R. Shugrue, the court-appointed trustee who replaced Lorenzo and insisted on keeping the airline running long after creditors thought it was viable.
In addition, the bankruptcy was complicated by continued bitter labor-management relations and union members who were prepared to see the airline die rather than allow it to be revived under Lorenzo.
There was also the need to consider the effect on travelers and competition. Then, in the end, there was an unexpected rise in fuel prices brought on by continued uncertainty in the Persian Gulf and record losses in the airline industry.
"This is a very bad one," said one attorney who is involved in another airline bankruptcy. "It was a complete, utter failure, a perversion of congressional intent. A bankruptcy is designed to serve its creditors."
"The process didn't work at all," said William J. Perlstein, a bankruptcy attorney at Washington's Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering. With both the number of bankruptcy cases and the stakes in high-profile cases growing, the question is whether people will become so mired in court fights that the process will stop working, he said.
Many on the long list of Eastern creditors -- a group that includes American Telephone & Telegraph Co., the European aircraft consortium Airbus Industrie, Boeing Co., General Electric Co. and a number of banks -- thought the airline should have been shut down months ago, when there was still money left for them. Instead, Lifland released more than $135 million to the company, which it finally lost at a rate of more than $2 million a day.
Now, attorneys for creditors say their clients probably will get nothing.
"I thought the role of the court was to protect the creditors, too," said Alan Boyd, head of Airbus Industrie and chairman of the Eastern creditors committee. "My current impression is that the bankruptcy process here was one-sided," he said, protecting only Eastern.
Shugrue yesterday stood by his decision to keep the airline running as long as possible.
"An operating Eastern was in the best interest of all the constituents in the case," he said in Miami.
The unions contend that Eastern might have survived if the court had stripped Lorenzo of control when the company first filed for bankruptcy.
Lifland ultimately did remove Lorenzo and replace him with Shugrue, but not until more than a year after the bankruptcy filing. Creditors other than the unions supported Lifland's decision to keep Lorenzo.
Another pivotal point in the process came when former baseball commissioner Peter V. Ueberroth and an investor group sought to buy the airline shortly after its bankruptcy filing. Negotiations broke down when Lifland refused to appoint a trustee to lead Eastern instead of Lorenzo. The unions had said they would not return to work as long as Lorenzo headed the airline. That and the inability of Lorenzo and Ueberroth to make a deal doomed that solution.
"I think there was a case for the appointment of a trustee from the very beginning," said one attorney who was not involved in the case. "That was the critical decision," he said, adding that if a trustee had been appointed and the union problems solved, the airline might have survived.
But the court placed too much emphasis on the impact the airline's shutdown would have on the public, experts said. This was not just any company, it was an airline that served tens of thousands of travelers each day.
"Every day, Eastern was burning up what would go to the creditors in fuel without any convincing favorable outcome," said Murray Drabkin, a bankruptcy attorney with Washington's Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft. "I suspect the court would have terminated it sooner had it not been transportation."
In the judge's mind, "the watchword of this case was that the airplanes had to fly," said one attorney involved in the case. "The public had to be served. ... What really got lost here was the creditors' interest."
Observers also said that when the finger pointing begins, there is a wide cast of characters available as targets.
Lifland has come in for criticism from numerous bankruptcy attorneys, including many who were not involved in the case but who do not want to be named because they must appear before him in other cases.
"I believe the court was directly responsible" for the failure, said James L. Linsey, an attorney representing the Air Line Pilots Association. "There was no incentive for Eastern to compromise or reach any agreement with the union. They knew the bankruptcy judge would give them whatever they wanted."
"What we can learn here is that judges should not get into areas they're not authorized or equipped to, such as the independent determination of the public interest," said another attorney not involved in the Eastern case. "The airline should have been shut down when it was clear that it was still possible to return money to creditors."
Said one observer of Lorenzo's role in the bankruptcy: "He had his own agenda. By the time he was thrown out, it was too late."
Still others said the creditors themselves must take some of the blame.
"So many of these creditors committees are driven by the lawyers and investment bankers," said Perlstein. "The creditors need to be devoting more energy to these cases. It's their money."
David I. Shapiro, former court-appointed examiner in the Eastern bankruptcy case, said it was "intransigent people on both sides who overplayed their hands and gave rise to the strike" that really caused the demise of Eastern.
"When you hate so much that you'd rather destroy the entity you're fighting about than make peace, you find yourself in the same position as Saddam Hussein," he said.
Martha M. Hamilton reported from Miami.