Depending on which almanac you read, or which old wives' tales you remember, it will be a cold winter if there's a lot of fog in October, if the bees are building nests in trees instead of in the ground or if fruits and nuts stay on the trees a long time.

We have another: if the airlines are hoarding cash.

As we report in our news pages today, the airlines in recent weeks have been as busy as squirrels, mortgaging assets, selling stock, issuing debt instruments of various kinds and generally just stocking up on greenbacks.

The experience of American's parent, AMR, is illustrative. In five transactions in September, it raised some $4.2 billion from selling stock, issuing new notes, refinancing aircraft and selling $1 billion worth of AAdvantage miles to Citi for distribution to credit card users.

AMR had ended the second quarter with cash and cash equivalents of $3.3 billion, down from $5.5 billion a year earlier. Judging by the flurry of activity in September, it spent the entire third quarter gathering more.

But despite all this activity, American's pile of acorns didn't grow by much.

The company recently predicted that it would enter the cold fourth quarter with $4.4 billion, just a bit more than it raised in September. In other words, it was treading water. Had it not raised $4.2 billion in September, it might be broke now.

This is about the best example we have seen lately of how quickly cash can fly out the door when an airline's fares are not covering its costs. And American's experience is not unique. Judging from news reports, it seems that airline executives these days spend more time raising money than running their businesses, which may help to explain why so many of us think they're not running them very well.

As the airline industry has evolved, we've gone through successive epochs where the true heroes were the pioneers of engineering, operations, safety, marketing. Today's heroes seem to be the finance folk, the cash managers, the guys who get you through the winter.

Good luck to them. From all accounts, this is going to be a winter of high unemployment and low consumer spending. And maybe a shortage of acorns, too.

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