United Airlines' makeover aims to refresh and renew

United, she argues, has low debt and lease obligations compared with other big airlines, largely because it hasn't taken a new plane since 2002 and hasn't ordered any in 11 years.

Some analysts continue to worry about the carrier's cash situation. It has about $2.8 billion in cash on hand. But it can't touch most of it because of restrictive loan and credit card processing covenants.

But others, such as Bob McAdoo at Avondale Partners, say United never really faced a cash crisis. Between unrestricted cash on hand and the likelihood of being able to raise up to $1 billion more, McAdoo wrote in an August report, "We do not believe that (UAL) will face a liquidity crunch in the foreseeable future."

Mikells says United has demonstrated it can raise capital. It pocketed $600 million this year through various debt transactions. Yet a deal that raised $155 million in July highlights investors' skittishness. It had hoped to pay 12.5% interest on debt secured by spare parts on hand. But to get takers, the yield had to be jumped to 17%.

Yet critics, such as George Hamlin, a veteran airline analyst and consultant based in Virginia, remain. He says United's thin cash reserves in a financially high-risk industry point to a prescription other than a makeover or a merger with another carrier as Tilton seeks.

"I doubt they would take my suggestion kindly," he says, "but United would be a good candidate for breakup into various parts."

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