AMR and American Airlines filed a lawsuit Friday asking that the U.S. Bankruptcy Court rule that the companies don’t have any obligation to keep providing health coverage and life insurance for retirees.

The lawsuit was filed against the Committee of Retired Employees, which is representing the interests of retired employees in the AMR/American Airlines bankruptcy case.

“The restructuring process is difficult for everyone affected, and we understand any changes to these benefits are concerning to our retirees,” American Airlines spokesman Bruce Hicks said.

“It’s important to remember, the changes we’re proposing are very similar to those we propose to make for active employees when they retire, and we are the last legacy carrier that has gone through this process,” Hicks said.

Here’s the gist of their argument, from the court filing:

“By this Adversary Proceeding, the Plaintiffs-Debtors seek a declaration from the Court that, although they have historically chosen to provide retiree health and welfare benefits, they are under no legal compulsion to continue to do so.

“Under the law of this Circuit, a plan sponsor is required to continue providing retiree health and welfare benefits to a plan participant only where the plan sponsor has promised to provide benefits to the participant for life and has not reserved its right to modify the benefit plan.

“Here, the Plaintiffs-Debtors have not made any such promises, explicitly have reserved their rights to modify the benefit plans, or both. Therefore, American’s retirees hold no vested right to the retiree health and welfare benefits American currently provides.

“Because the retiree health and welfare benefits are not vested, and because modifying retiree health and welfare benefits to reduce costs falls within American’s sound business judgment, American may unilaterally modify health and welfare benefits for current retirees.”

Thus far in the bankruptcy case, AMR and American have focused on reducing costs involving current employees. However, it had made clear that it intended to address the costs of providing retiree health benefits before the case was concluded.

In its filing, AMR/AA said its liability is $1.26 billion for retiree health and welfare benefits for its retired union members – pilots, flight attendants and ground workers – and for non-union employees. Its liability for Trans World Airlines retirees is $111.4 million.

Those figures are from 2010, the last year before AMR and American filed for bankruptcy.

This adversary case will be heard by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Sean Lane, who is handling the AMR/AA bankruptcy case.

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