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Briefing and Opinion
May 20, 2005

George Gardiner and Celeste Ford

George Gardiner has spent three decades in the airline industry and has worked for four different airlines. Gardiner retired after 12 years at United Airlines. Last week's court decision allowing United to dump its pension benefits could cost George one-third of his current monthly pension of $870.

Q: What has United Airline's default meant for your retirement?

About a 40 percent cut in benefits, plus a stock plan that cost me $100,000. I'm one of the lucky ones. I had a home to sell, to where I could downsize. I lost my wife two years ago. I don't have to look at her and feel as a failure.

Q: What's the greatest human cost with this pension turmoil?

I have friends that became alcoholics. I have friends that lost marriages, have lost homes. It beats you down. You work for something. You strive for something. You have dreams, and it's gone -- your ability to help your children, to help them with an education, maybe give them a start in life. We will be going to them, asking them for help.

Q: Were you ever concerned there could be a problem with your pension, considering the other defaults you had seen in the airline industry?

A: No, actually I thought that sooner or later somebody along the line was going to say, "We can't let this happen anymore." I see no one cares. The government sure does not care. It stepped in to cut our pension early, so it could cut its losses a little bit.

Q: Is it taxpayers' responsibility to pay for the pension shortfalls if this federal insurance program has more serious problems?

It probably should be. More of you are going to be affected by it than you realize, and not by paying the taxes. Show me somebody who doesn't have a brother, an uncle, a father, or a wife that is being outsourced, downsized, or losing something. We are all being affected. If we can afford to send money to every country on the corner of this world then, yes, my pension should be guaranteed. This is not my fault. I didn't choose to do this. I didn't make bad decisions.

Q: There is a movement toward what is known as an ownership society that says employees like you should take more responsibility for your retirement plans. What do you think about that?

A: Fine, give me the opportunity. But don't tie my hands and then eight years later say, "You should have done this." I was proactive, that is the only reason I could retire. I did have an IRA on my own. I did manage my money reasonably well. I did not live above my means. But you have people today, they don't have a choice.

Q: In a highly competitive global marketplace, how can we expect companies to continue offering these generous pensions?

A: They don't seem to have any problems trying to find millions of dollars for the CEOs. You want a generous pension? How can you give one man $10 million and say he earned it, and say to someone else who had 35 years in the workplace, "You're getting too much. We're taking 30 percent away." I could see it if the pain was shared across the board. The pain is not shared.

Q: What is the outlook like for folks nearing retirement?

A: Like I said, I'm a lucky one. I had equity in a home, which I chose to downsize, move into a smaller place. If it was not for the fact that I had received a decent life insurance settlement when my wife passed away and a small pension from her job, I would be working. Probably I'd be working until I was 70 at least.

Q: What would you like to see for the next generation in your family?

A: Just an opportunity to have the same thing that I had: a decent job, decent benefits, something that you're proud to get up to do in the morning. And a little something that you can live off of at the end.