POCKET CHANGEBANKRUPT AMERICA WEST SHUFFLES ITS DEBTS, BUT NEEDS MORE THAN FRANKE TALK TO SURVIVE

An old college textbook seemed inconsequential when Doug Combs happened upon it about two years ago. Nonetheless, he thumbed through the book on economics before throwing it away.

By chance the veteran America West pilot's eye alighted upon one sentence that gave him pause. Buying stock in a company, it said, is effectively the same as casting a vote of confidence in that company's management.

Well put, Combs thought. He promptly went out and sold his shares of America West Airlines. Within months, Combs' employer confirmed his prescience by filing for bankruptcy protection.

More than 15 months later, the confidence of many like Combs, who still flies for America West, remains tepid as the battle to salvage Phoenix's largest hometown carrier continues.

Last month Governor J. Fife Symington III--who had initially offered the airline a cold shoulder when it hit the skids--marshaled some of the state's most prominent businessmen and announced that the Phoenix financial community was willing to cast an $8 million vote of confidence in the beleaguered company.

Ten businesses--including three banks, the local daily newspapers, the Phoenix Cardinals, the Phoenix Suns, an America West landlord and three corporations--joined with the state Commerce and Economic Development Commission to lend the $8 million to America West as part of a $53 million cash bailout.

Their help was secured by William Franke, the man Symington asked to lead the money-raising drive. In return for his help, Franke was installed as chairman of the America West board of directors at an undisclosed salary.

A rash of news stories, gentle on the hometown airline, hailed the new financing as a "fresh start" for America West. Symington called it "a financial package which assures the airline a strong chance of emerging from Chapter 11 and a return to profitability."

Franke was cast as a late-arriving savior, skilled in nursing distressed companies through troubled times.

But for tens of thousands of employees, stockholders, investors and creditors who have money and jobs on the line, the questions that have outlived the hoopla remain grim.

Does the latest deal truly breathe new life into the company, or does it merely prop up the carcass a little longer?

With 10,000 jobs and a billion-dollar annual economic impact at stake, they are reasonable questions. The answers leave little room for solace. The company's fate remains as murky now as it did when it filed Chapter 11.

Franke hopes the financing will buy the airline enough time to fight its way back to profitability, attract new investors and emerge from bankruptcy-court protection.

But some observers and analysts doubt that. They wonder what the airline has been doing for the past 15 months if it still needs to be propped up while devising a plan to make money.

Few dispute that the financing package saved America West for the moment. The airline was within days of shutting down when the deal closed, one company official told the bankruptcy court.

But how much time has it managed to buy?
Behind the public veneer of confidence crafted by Symington, the airline and its boosters, lie some troubling realities that have been scarcely reported.

ùMore than half of the $53 million in new cash lent to America West immediately turned around and went straight back out the door, much of it to the very companies that had lent the money in the first place. Only about $20 million of it stayed in the airline's bank account to help the company pay its other bills.

ùFranke's luster as an old hand skilled at turning around troubled companies fades under scrutiny. He has served on the boards of companies embroiled in financial disaster. But in the most prominent instances, he was on those boards as the decisions were being made that led to the disasters, and he did not necessarily play a large role in fixing the problems that came to pass. The last large company Franke actually ran, Southwest Forest Industries, lost $100 million in ten years before it was sold.

ùHowever much time Franke and the new financing manage to buy the airline, after 15 months in bankruptcy, America West has yet to make fundamental decisions about what size and type of airline it will be, decisions that all parties agree are crucial if the company is to attract new investors.

Despite Symington's public optimism--and willingness to share the spotlight in announcing the latest round of financing--the state has actually done little of substance to help the airline. It has chipped in $1 million from the Commerce and Economic Development Commission and cut aviation fuel taxes enough to save America West about $880,000 in the next year. Those efforts pale in comparison to what other states, most notably Minnesota, have done to save their local airlines, pouring in hundreds of millions of dollars to bring them back to health.

Doug Combs is not yet ready to cast a vote of confidence in his employer's future. "I don't know anyone who isn't keeping their options open," he says.

@rule:
@body:Businesses run on cash, and airlines require a lot of it, every day. Wages, fuel, rentals on planes, repairs and so on require airline companies to stay current on myriad obligations if they want to keep their planes in the air.

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