Assume the Crash Position

David Witt

As Congress was ironing the kinks out of a landmark pension reform bill earlier this month, lobbyists for American Airlines and Continental visited Capitol Hill to express their displeasure. This was ironic, since each was in line to gain a huge concession: the right to stretch catch-up payments into underfunded workers' retirement plans over 10 years, as opposed to the seven that other struggling companies were being given. The lobbyists were peeved, however, because they didn't receive as much breathing room as Northwest Airlines and Delta, which got 17 years to fill their funds.

The lawmakers' reply? Minnesota Rep. John Kline told reporters that American and Continental could have the same relaxed timeline as their bankrupt brethren, provided they agreed to freeze their pensions—that is, block new workers from joining the plan and cease making new payments on behalf of existing workers.

Monique Morrissey, a pension expert with the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., supports the pension bill's catch-up period, which increases the chance that employers will meet their obligations. But every company, she says, should have received the special extension that Northwest and Delta will enjoy, with the extra time helping to smooth out the turbulence in the market.

The traditional retiree pension is literally being reformed out of existence, economists and lobbyists familiar with the machinations behind the legislation say. Adding insult to injury, they say, the only workers at Northwest who will benefit from the new federal legislation are the pilots. (Airline executives, naturally, stand to enjoy lavish retirement packages—but more on that later.)

The real winners under the bill are the investment firms—companies like Fidelity and Prudential—that also lobbied for the reform and that stand to pick up the estimated 5 million people who will now need to begin saving for retirement on their own in an IRA or 401(k).

"The financial services industry stands to gain a lot," says one Minnesota lobbyist who worked on the issue. "That's a pretty easy duck to fry; their profits are crazy."

Northwest is just one of a host of large corporations and business alliances that began lobbying for reform in 2002 after a confluence of events pension managers have dubbed "the perfect storm." Most retirement funds emerged from the record stock market highs of the 1990s flush with cash. But they went on to lose huge amounts virtually overnight in 2001 when the stock market and interest rates fell at the same time. Suddenly companies were expected to make up massive shortfalls in trying economic times. If they couldn't, and chose to resolve things by jettisoning their pensions, taxpayers would be left holding the tab.

When a company terminates its pensions, payments to its retirees become the obligation of the federal Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp. Because the agency caps the amount it will pay a worker at $47,000 a year, terminations have less of an effect on lower-wage workers such as flight attendants and mechanics than on pilots and other high earners who can lose as much as 75 percent of their payments. While pilots may now stand a better chance of receiving their more generous pensions, the majority of new workers at the airline will be left to fend for themselves.


Understanding how it is that number-crunchers decide if a pension fund has adequate resources is an exercise in math so complicated it makes determining the price of a business-class ticket on Northwest seem simple. Factors include how many people are now on the job putting in dollars, how many retirees are dependent on it now and in the future, how long and healthily those retirees can be expected to live, and, most obviously, how well every dollar is invested. As airlines, automakers, manufacturers, and other large employers cut their workforces, reducing the number of people paying in, the math becomes increasingly difficult.

These unfortunate Fortune 500 companies have found an easier way to make the numbers add up: Pay lobbyists to help ward off the companies' financial obligations. In 2004, the year the airline began pressing for the provisions of the current bill, Northwest spent $2.6 million lobbying Congress. In 2005, it spent almost $2 million. Many of its contracts went to firms and lobbyists doing work for a number of big clients on employee-benefits issues. (Federal law requires the airline to file a midyear report on its 2006 spending this week, but the numbers won't be available to the public for months.) Plenty of other employers facing the same predicament dug deep, too: During the same time period, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent some $8 million on lobbying, while the National Association of Manufacturers spent $2.2 million.

If that sounds like big money, it's dwarfed by the amount of influence the finance, insurance, and real estate industries have tried to buy on this and other measures. As a whole, the sector spent a total of $2.1 billion on lobbying between 1998 and 2005. Much of it—$50 million last year alone—has gone to encourage legislation steering more consumer dollars into the mutual funds the financial services industry wants to sell.

The details of the reform that President Bush signed August 4 take up 900 pages, but in its essence the legislation represents a win for both sets of lobbyists: ailing pension providers and financial services firms. Because it won't have to make up the shortfall quickly, Northwest is more likely to keep its pensions and to chip away at making sure they have enough assets to eventually pay out every dollar committed to until now.

But the shift from traditional pensions to individual free-market accounts will accelerate. The reform requires companies whose plans are less than 80 percent funded to freeze benefits, meaning they'll make no new pledges to current or future workers, and it encourages them to push employees into 401(k)s. Employers in general will receive new incentives to make workers "opt out" of enrolling in 401(k)s instead of taking the initiative to join. This is expected to dramatically increase the percentage of workers who participate in their individual retirement plans—and also the amount of money going to the investment firms that manage them.

Lawmakers and lobbyists spent months working on the reform, and in the end it passed with only token opposition from nine Texas lawmakers who were angry that Dallas-based American Airlines didn't get everything it wanted.

"American and Continental are two companies who are responsibly funding their pension plans," says Mark Taylor, a national officer of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association in Colorado, whose members have been on strike against Northwest for more than a year. "This puts those two companies at a disadvantage and it's totally unfair."

If Congress wants to do something for airline workers, he adds, it should reform the laws that allow companies to use bankruptcy to shed pensions and other commitments to workers. "This does not get me excited at all," he says. Regardless of how the measure is being portrayed, "Nobody can stop them from terminating the pensions."

The day Bush signed the measure, Delta filed for permission to terminate its pilots' pension, which had assets equal to just 39 percent of its liability. Nearly 2,000 pilots were to become eligible to retire on October 1; more than half would be eligible to take a lump-sum payment of $500,000. If the bankruptcy court overseeing Delta's reorganization approves the request, taxpayers will pick up some of the shortfall, while the pilots will simply forfeit the rest.

As for Northwest's brass, the reform is irrelevant to their plans to retire comfortably. According to documents filed last year with the Securities and Exchange Commission on June 30, CEO Doug Steenland can expect to receive pension benefits (including health care for life) totaling $947,417 a year. Other "named executive officers" can expect to receive $414,000 to $560,000 a year. Former CEO Richard Anderson, who left Northwest two years ago, walked away with a lump-sum payment of $3.5 million in retirement money.

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