First, to reiterate the "no change" aspect. If you have an American ticket, almost all of you will get where you're going. You shouldn't hesitate to buy a ticket for a future American flight, either -- that, too, will be likely to operate as advertised. And your frequent flyer stuff will also be OK -- your accrued miles, any award trips you've already booked, and your elite status. American will remain in the OneWorld alliance and it will continue its extensive British Airways partnership.
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MINOR SCHEDULE TWEAKS. As a short-term bandage on the ongoing losses, American will probably cut back on a few mainline flights over the coming few months -- not wholesale, but any chronically unprofitable flights are likely to be dropped. If you're ticketed on one of those flights, American will rebook you, so you won't lose. But a few of you can expect some minor schedule disruption.
REGIONAL CUTBACKS. Feeder American Eagle will face some tougher cutbacks, and serious pruning will start fairly quickly. Because of the industry's most restrictive "scope clause," American Eagle is stuck operating a fleet of small jets and turboprops other airlines have found to be completely uneconomical with today's high fuel costs. And getting around the scope clause will require some tough negotiations with American's pilots.
LABOR PROBLEMS. Labor is the biggest threat to a seamless bankruptcy and reorganization. The bankruptcy will likely either wipe out or severely limit American's pension program, the line will probably try to gain further wage concessions from pilots and other employees, and negotiations over the scope clause could be sticky. Depending on circumstances, American might well be caught up in slowdowns, stoppages, or strikes as it tries to cut costs to competitive levels. This scenario isn't likely right way, but if negotiations prove sticky, problems could arise after some months.
LOSS OF IDENTITY. Long term, many industry mavens are saying that American has to merge, which could even mean being acquired by a smaller line with a stronger financial position. Most speculation centers on US Airways, but that line isn't a great fit. Its current product is mediocre, at best, and it has only a few of the lucrative long-haul international routes that American needs. In such a merger, "American Airlines" would undoubtedly survive as the brand name, but the "look and feel" of the airline could change substantially -- and most likely for the worse.
All in all, even after a relatively painless bankruptcy, a reborn American is facing a tough and uncertain future. As a traveler, you're OK dealing with American over the next year or so, but in the long term you may find a totally different airline.
Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at email@example.com. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through www.mybusinesstravel.com or www.amazon.com