TOKYO — Japan Airlines is expected to file for bankruptcy protection today, ending months-long speculation about its fate and launching a massive overhaul to shed the fat and inefficiency that hobbled Asia's biggest airline.
With debts of $16.5 billion as of November, the carrier will go down in Japanese corporate history as one of its biggest failures.
Its access to Asia, however, is a mouthwatering prize for foreign airlines. The tug-of-war between Delta Air Lines and American Airlines intensified even as bankruptcy loomed, with the latest media reports pointing to Delta as the eventual winner.
The bankruptcy filing will most likely be immediately followed by a restructuring plan crafted by a government-backed corporate turnaround body. The government itself will offer assurances of support for the airline's rehabilitation and ongoing operations, the Nikkei financial daily said.
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Investors Monday braced for a seemingly inevitable removal of the airline's shares from the Tokyo Stock Exchange.
The issue, which has lost more than 90 percent of its value over the past week, tumbled another 29 percent Monday to 6 cents. The company is now essentially worthless, with a market capitalization of about $150 million — the price of one Boeing 787 jet.
It's a humbling outcome for Japan's once-proud flagship carrier, called JAL for short, which was founded in 1951 and spent its early years owned by the state. Along with Japan's economy, it expanded quickly in the decades after World War II and was privatized in 1987.
But it soon became the victim of its own ambitions.
When Japan's property and stock bubble of the 1980s burst, risky investments in foreign resorts and hotels undermined its bottom line. JAL also shouldered growing pension and payroll costs, as well as a big network of unprofitable domestic routes it was politically obligated to maintain.
More recently, JAL's passenger traffic has slowed amid the global economic downturn, swine flu fears, competition from Japanese rival All Nippon Airways Co. and a spate of safety lapses that tarnished its image. It lost $1.4 billion in the six months through September.
Its four government bailouts since 2001 only exacerbated JAL's problems, officials now say.
The restructuring plan in the works at the Enterprise Turnaround Initiative Corp. calls for about 15,600 job cuts — a third of JAL's work force — and will require the airline to cut the number of flights at home and abroad, according to Kyodo News agency.
Officials have said JAL will keep flying through the restructuring process.
Delta Air Lines — the world's biggest airline — and rival American Airlines are courting JAL with massive financial offers as the U.S. carriers seek to expand their Asian networks.
JAL's core value is its "unrivaled access" to Japan, a top Asian market, according to the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation, a Sydney-based aviation market research firm.
Japan's international air market — people flying in and out of the country — is 48 percent bigger than South Korea, and twice as large as Hong Kong or India, it said in a recent report. Narita International Airport remains a key hub, and Tokyo's Haneda Airport is set to expand its role when its opens a new runway and international terminal later this year.
Delta and its SkyTeam partners have offered $1 billion, including $500 million in cash, to lure JAL away from American Airlines. American and its partners say they are ready to inject $1.4 billion cash into the Japanese airline, up from a previous $1.1 billion offer.
As of March, JAL's fleet consisted of 279 aircraft, mainly from Boeing. It served 220 airports in 35 countries and territories, including 59 domestic airports.
It carried 11.7 million international passengers last fiscal year and 41.2 million travelers domestically. International traffic was down 12.4 percent from the previous year, while the domestic passenger count fell 1.8 percent.