The Washington Times reports that American Airlines is turning a slight profit. That's good, and what I would expect. Does this mean that they'll start paying back the $900 million in cash plus additional loan guarantees that the people of the United States gave the company two years ago? Not likely.
I'm not saying that it should be paid back, necessarily. I've wavered over whether or not the post-9/11 bailout of the airline industry was a good idea, but I tend to think it wasn't. Yes, many airlines would have gone out of business, but that would have been a good thing. It's not like the planes would just vanish, or even stop flying (most likely); the horribly mismanaged and poorly organized relics of the past century would likely have been reorganized and rebuilt using the more successful business models of Southwest and JetBlue.
One of the biggest advantages held by the later two airlines is that they only fly one or two types of plane. Pilot, air crews, and mechanics are normally only trained and certified on a single type of aircraft, and the older airlines' wide variety of different planes tends to push their labor costs through the roof. Having a variety of planes can save money if the most efficient plane for each length journey is always used, but such theoretical savings are never realized. On the contrary, the large fleets are not flexible enough to allocate planes in an optimally efficient manner, and they are terribly expensive to maintain. Planes and crews may sit idle because they are not compatible with each other.
Plus, the old airlines are built around business travellers, and with the tightened belts of the past few years even business travellers are scouring the web for cheap tickets.
In general, I think that we as a society need to be willing to let giant corporations fail, rather than bail them out. By my understanding, one of the reasons Japan's economy has stagnated over the past 15 years is because of government bailouts of unprofitable companies -- I certainly don't want America to meet that same fate. Failing companies will hit the stock market in the short-term, but once their assets are reallocated and restructured the economy will be better off from the gain in efficiency.