Tuesday, October 26, 2004

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — ATA Airlines Inc., the nation’s 10th-largest airline, filed for bankruptcy protection yesterday and sold off airport slots in Washington and other assets to AirTran Airways Inc. for $87.6 million, to become the latest U.S. airline tripped up by rising fuel costs and fare wars.

Orlando, Fla.-based AirTran Holdings Inc. will assume ATA’s flight operations, gate leases and routes at Chicago Midway Airport and arrival and departure slots at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and New York’s LaGuardia Airport.

The deal is subject to approvals by the bankruptcy court and other entities and is expected to take effect by early next year, ATA officials said.

“We will recreate ATA as a formidable, low-cost carrier,” ATA founder and Chief Executive Officer George Mikelsons said yesterday.

ATA’s announcement came amid speculation that Delta Air Lines Inc., the nation’s third-largest airline, would win $1 billion in concessions from its pilots and avoid bankruptcy. The airline is expected to decide by today whether to seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

ATA on Monday named an executive to oversee the restructuring of the discount carrier’s mounting debt.

The filing under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy code came as the Indianapolis-based airline faces soaring fuel costs, an industry fare war and sharply lower demand for military charter flights.

ATA also is saddled with millions of dollars in debt from new aircraft purchases.

The value of the company plummeted 36 percent yesterday, its stock closing at 93 cents a share, down 53 cents, on the Nasdaq Stock Market. The stock had hit a 52-week high of $13.31 on Feb. 2.

In Washington, the Air Transportation Stabilization Board said it planned to work with the airline through the bankruptcy process to make sure taxpayers’ interests were protected.

The board, which was set up after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to administer a $10 billion government loan guarantee program for the airlines, issued ATA a $148.5 million loan guarantee in September 2002.

“The proposed sale of assets will be closely scrutinized by the board to mitigate any additional risks the transaction may pose to taxpayers,” the board said in a statement.

In its filing, ATA seeks bankruptcy protection for eight different corporate entities from more than 1,000 creditors. The filing listed total assets of $745.1 million and total debts of $940.5 million.

In recent weeks ATA has announced plans to cut more than 300 jobs, including 150 flight attendants. So far this year, ATA pilots and flight attendants have accepted nearly $70 million in wage concessions.

In an SEC filing last week, ATA said its finances have worsened since Aug. 16, when it reported that it had lost $90.7 million during the first half of 2004.

ATA is the nation’s 10th-largest U.S. carrier based on revenue passenger miles. Over the first nine months of this year, ATA flew 7.8 million passengers, up 11 percent over the same period in 2003.

It is the largest North American operator of commercial and military charters. ATA operates hubs at Chicago’s Midway Airport, where it has 14 gates, and Indianapolis International Airport.

Indianapolis will remain ATA’s headquarters and primary hub, company officials said. The airline plans to honor tickets and maintain its full flight schedule.

Dennis Rosebrough, a spokesman for Indianapolis International Airport, said the bankruptcy filing likely would have minimal impact on passenger service at the airport.

ATA, which was founded in 1973 in Indianapolis as American Trans Air, has 7,900 employees, including 2,500 in Indianapolis.

On Monday, ATA’s parent corporation, ATA Holdings Corp., announced that it had appointed Gilbert F. Viets, a retired Arthur Andersen accountant, the company’s chief restructuring officer.

Mr. Viets took over as ATA’s chief financial officer after the June resignation of David M. Wing. He has resumed his former position with the company, Mr. Mikelsons said Monday.

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