Unions at American Airlines Group Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc. are studying ways to reconstitute or replace retirement plans that were scrapped or frozen during the carriers’ past financial struggles.
The efforts suggest that pilots are ready to play hardball over the issue in the next round of labor talks, starting early next year at American. The three biggest U.S. carriers have reported combined adjusted profits of about $47 billion over the past five years. But reviving old retirement plans would be a big new expense for the companies just as other costs, such as fuel, are rising.
“This company is flush with money,” said Dan Carey, president of the Allied Pilots Association, which represents aviators at American. At the same time, “we have a high demographic of middle-age pilots and we’re approaching retirement age with insufficient pension security. This is an immediate problem.”
Discussions are in early stages, and any changes would require buy-in both by union members and the companies. Most airlines now have defined-contribution retirement plans like a 401(k). Those are less expensive and less risky for companies than defined-benefit pension plans that guarantee certain payouts but can become underfunded if investments don’t keep up with obligations.
Delta pilots have met with counterparts at FedEx Corp., where union leaders are evaluating possible remedies to a shortfall in retirement benefits for the company’s senior aviators. American is seeking its own meeting. A recent memo issued by the Delta union’s Atlanta chapter talks about considering a “defined benefit-like” plan.
Retirement benefits are especially critical for pilots because the law requires them to retire at 65.
“We don’t have an option to say I’m not prepared financially now, I’ll keep working until I get there,” said Chuck Dyer, chairman of the FedEx chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association.
FedEx’s pilot union is among those exploring variable pensions, which allow employers to raise or lower benefits based on how well a fund’s investments perform. Companies share risk with employees with the variable plans, which provide more flexibility in economic downturns.
FedEx never filed for bankruptcy, but its current defined-benefit plan has limitations that have capped benefits well below pilots’ final earnings level, Dyer said. The union is exploring whether they should seek to replace it with a variable plan, while also keeping an existing retirement savings plan to help balance risk.
Pension plans frozen during airline bankruptcies that rocked the industry over the last decade and a half are a major hurdle to change. When a plan is frozen, it generally closes to new participants and benefits won’t grow. Some of these plans are overseen by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. (PBGC), a quasi-governmental agency that insures U.S. defined-benefit pensions.