DALLAS ( TheStreet) -- Sometimes it seems that the deck is stacked against American Airlines ( AMR). Regulators in the U.S. and Europe have not approved American's bid for antitrust immunity with key transatlantic partners, even though they long ago awarded the very same advantage to American's competitors. American's pilots are not only among the industry's highest paid: They are also the most cantankerous. On Wall Street, American constantly faces unwarranted bankruptcy speculation, even though -- or perhaps because -- it is the only major carrier never to have filed for bankruptcy. See Our Top Rated Airline Stocks > And over the past year, since it merged with Northwest to become the world's largest airline, Delta ( DAL) has flexed its muscles at key airports around the world -- often at American's expense. On some days, American CEO Gerard Arpey must just want to scream. "None of these things are life-threatening, but some of them are important," says Avondale Partners analyst Bob McAdoo. "Taken all together, they are probably enough to drive Gerard up a wall." Adds aviation consultant Robert Mann: "It's as if Gerard doesn't want to open the newspaper anymore." American spokesman Roger Frizzell says Arpey is undaunted. Several times in recent years, Arpey has told senior leadership, "We're not victims," Frizzell said. "He makes it clear that even though there are elements of our business we cannot control, there are also things we can control. If you do that, you have a better chance of succeeding through the tough times, no matter what comes at you."
Frizzell says a recent financing package, which produced $2.9 billion for American, was a breakthrough. "There has been a new energy by the entire leadership team, a new focus," he says. "Since the financing agreement, Gerard has become more determined than ever to make the company successful." Still, it can be painful to imagine Arpey reading his morning newspaper. Early this month, European Union regulators warned American and partners British Airways and Iberia that their bid for antitrust immunity may violate antitrust rules. Antitrust immunity enables carriers to jointly discuss pricing and scheduling with partners, something that Delta, United ( UAUA) and Continental ( CAL) already do. American's bid for immunity requires approval by U.S. and European regulators. "It's hard to understand why American should have restrictions that somebody else doesn't have," McAdoo says. "That doesn't make any sense." In September, Japanese media revealed that Delta was negotiating to invest in Japan Airlines and to replace American as JAL's partner. As the only one of the three largest U.S. airlines without a Tokyo hub, American relies on an alliance with JAL to connect passengers in Tokyo. Delta's move traps Arpey. If American is fortunate, it will spend hundreds of millions of dollars to maintain a relationship it already has. If American is unfortunate, it will lose the relationship. In August, Delta and US Airways ( LCC) said they would trade slots and other assets, giving Delta a stronger presence at New York's La Guardia Airport. "American's dominance in New York has eroded," Mann says.
Last week, the Allied Pilots Association, which represents American's 11,000 pilots, picketed the Transportation Department in Washington to oppose global aviation alliances, specifically American's bid for antitrust immunity. Generally, American pilots seem hard-wired to oppose whatever the airline does. Perhaps that is understandable, given simmering anger over two executive compensation deals. American narrowly avoided bankruptcy in 2003 because unions agreed to $1.6 billion in concessions. Days later, the carrier revealed it had secretly established a trust fund to shield pensions for 45 executives if there were a bankruptcy. Former CEO Don Carty quickly resigned. Additionally, since 2005, nearly 900 managers have collected about $200 million in awards linked to share price. "If you lose the trust of your employees, they put the brakes on," says Mann, who consulted for APA in 2003. "The prospect of change with a management team you don't trust is not a good prospect." But what can Arpey do? He succeeded Carty after the trust fund's existence was revealed. Pilots had already rejected the concept of stock as part of their pay package. And even the federal government seems largely unable to rescind pay promises to executives. Arpey seems a confident but dispassionate, lay-out-the-facts manager, trusting to an innate belief that his well-managed company makes good decisions, and that the rest of the world will eventually realize that the only proper course is to follow American's lead. For instance, American was early to reduce capacity, cutting back by 11% between the end of 2007 and the end of 2009. The industry has benefitted from similar moves. American was first to impose a first-bag fee in May 2008; it waited stoically for weeks, until someone finally matched. Again, the industry has benefitted. Now Arpey believes regulators will see reality on antitrust immunity. "If the facts matter, we'll be approved this fall," he said during the September conference call. "I think the facts do matter," he added, hopefully. -- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C. .