Japan Airlines bankruptcy filing expected Tuesday

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TOKYO (AP) — Japan Airlines is expected to file for bankruptcy protection Tuesday, 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 1.5 trillion yen ($16.5 billion) as of November, the carrier will go down in Japanese corporate history as one of its biggest failures.

Despite its woes, the airline’s access to Asia is a prized asset for foreign airlines. Delta Air Lines Inc. is trying to lure Japan Airlines from its alliance with American Airlines.

The bankruptcy filing will be immediately followed by a restructuring plan crafted by a government-backed corporate turnaround body, according to media reports over the weekend. The government itself will offer assurances of support for the airline’s rehabilitation and ongoing operations, the Nikkei financial daily said.

Investors Monday braced for a seemingly inevitable removal of the airline’s shares from the stock exchange.

The issue, which has lost more than 90 percent of its value over the last week, tumbled another 29 percent Monday to 5 yen. The company is now essentially worthless, with a market capitalization of about 13.7 billion yen ($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 131.2 billion yen ($1.4 billion) in the six months through September.

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.

Transportation Minister Seiji Maehara has said he wants to keep JAL flying through the restructuring process.

Delta Air Lines — the world’s biggest airline operator — and rival American Airlines are courting JAL with massive financial offers as the U.S. carriers seek to expand their Asian networks.

Delta and its SkyTeam partners have offered $1 billion, including $500 million in cash to lure JAL away from American’s oneworld alliance. American Airlines 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.