PBGC Director Joshua Gotbaum; Illustration by Arthur Mount

A YEAR AGO, IN THE WEEK AFTER THANKSGIVING, AMR Corp., parent of American Airlines, gave its 130,000 employees and retirees something to be less than grateful for: The third-largest U.S. airline filed a Chapter 11 petition to restructure the company via bankruptcy court. Like Delta Air Lines, Northwest Airlines Corp. and United Airlines parent UAL Corp. before it, American contended it would need to unload its four defined benefit pension plans to return to profitability. If the company succeeded, a total of about $8.3 billion in assets to help cover $18.5 billion in promised benefits could have vanished from its books. No company had ever tried to escape pension obligations as large.

The ink on the AMR filing was barely dry when the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., the federal pension insurance agency, swung into action. Leading the charge: PBGC director Joshua Gotbaum.

The prospect of giant American Airlines leaving taxpayers with the bill for its pension promises gave Gotbaum a high-profile perch from which to begin the job of remaking the federal pension insurance corporation, which now oversees $107 billion in obligations. Appointed by President Barack Obama in July 2010, the 61-year-old Gotbaum soon found himself on a mission to repair an agency damaged by annual threats of looming insolvency, constant turnover at the top, years of poor oversight by long-entrenched staff in key roles, questionable governance practices and a truckload of scathingly critical reports by its inspector general and the Government Accountability Office.