If only airline stocks enjoyed the same robust survival odds as airline passengers. This week the industry's mounting casualty count reached into the realm of the household names, with a bankruptcy warning from the United unit of UAL ( UAL) and an actual filing by US Airways ( U). And though everyone agrees the future is hard to handicap, there's no question that investors are anxious that they could soon be watching a game of Chapter 11 dominoes. That's because, as in other troubled industries, perhaps the airlines' greatest problem is a bloated cost structure. Analysts say companies that file bankruptcy can get a head start on trimming those costs, potentially further pressuring competitors whose costs remain high. "If United goes bankrupt, it could mean that American ( AMR) and Delta ( DAL) and every other
major airline has to file as well," said John Pincavage, an industry consultant who spent 30 years as an airline analyst at the major research houses. "Everybody is vulnerable." Jenkins unapologetically calls that decision by Creighton, now a lame duck interim CEO, "one of the stupidest things that's ever been done in the history of the world." But few of Creighton's executive decisions could be classified as easy. Before Creighton assumed power, stepping in last October after unions drove off former CEO James Goodwin, United was already on its way to a $2.1 billion annual loss that would shatter industry records. Since then, the country's second-largest carrier has remained its largest loser with a $341 million loss last quarter. On Wednesday, Creighton appeared to throw his hands in the air again, this time leaving all his cards on table for the world -- but particularly the unions -- to see. The company wasn't bluffing. Unless the rules changed, and maybe even if they did, the game could soon be over. "We are facing debt payments of $875 million in the fourth quarter, and we have insufficient access to the public capital markets to repay them," Creighton said. "We have given ourselves a very short time frame -- 30 days -- to conclude our discussions with all stakeholders. ... Unless we lower our costs dramatically, filing for bankruptcy protection will be the only way we can ensure the company's future and the continued operation of our airline."