February 5, 2024
Dr. Bob McClure and Joseph Visconti
This merger isn’t merely about corporate gain; it’s about preserving a low-cost travel option for consumers.
In a recent ruling, Judge William G. Young’s decision to block the JetBlue-Spirit merger under the Clayton Act reflects a misinterpretation of antitrust laws. It suggests an undercurrent of the Joe Biden administration’s political influence overshadowing economic pragmatism.
This decision, while legally sound on the surface, fails to recognize the evolving dynamics of the airline industry and the need for robust competition against industry giants like Delta, American, Southwest and United.
Looking deeper, it seems to align with the current Biden administration’s cautious approach to corporate consolidations, at the expense of consumer benefit and market competitiveness.
The Clayton Act is a hundred-year-old law that has served as the bedrock for preventing anti-competitive practices within the United States. However, its legal application and interpretation should be as ever-changing as the markets it regulates.
The Act’s purpose is to prevent actions by companies that would significantly lessen competition or tend to create a monopoly. The ruling in the JetBlue-Spirit merger case is asserted on a narrow interpretation of the Act. The ruling ignored the potential for enhanced competition and consumer choice.
This merger isn’t merely about corporate gain; it’s about preserving a low-cost travel option for consumers. Moreover, the role of Ultra Low-Cost Carriers (ULCCs) like Spirit in promoting competition by offering affordable travel cannot be understated. The merger could reinforce this segment, potentially leading to aggressive pricing strategies against major carriers, ultimately benefiting consumers. All the while, when looking back at the history of past airline consolidations, such as the Delta-Northwest, United-Continental and American-US Airways mergers, it is demonstrated that such consolidations lead to greater efficiency, more extensive networks and improved consumer services.
The Delta-Northwest merger in 2008 proved to be a successful consolidation that led to Delta Air Lines becoming the world’s largest airline at the time in fleet size, passengers carried and revenue passenger-kilometer (which is calculated by multiplying the number of revenue-paying passengers aboard an aircraft by the distance the aircraft traveled).
This merger significantly increased Delta’s market share, combining Delta’s 17% and Northwest’s 10% to control approximately 27% of the U.S. market. In stark contrast, the proposed JetBlue-Spirit merger projected a much more modest market share of just 10.5%.
This comparison demonstrates the modesty of the JetBlue-Spirit merger in terms of market impact, particularly when viewed against the backdrop of previous major airline mergers.
The relative scale of the JetBlue-Spirit merger, being significantly smaller in market share compared to the Delta-Northwest merger, calls into question the constitutionality of the recent verdict, suggesting an overly cautious approach that is killing healthy market competition and stunting growth in this country.
In addition to what history has told U.S. consumers about airlines consolidation, it is crucial to understand the currently looming financial struggles Spirit Airlines will face in the coming year. The Wall Street Journal highlights that Spirit Airlines is currently dealing with a daunting debt of $1.1 billion that is due in the upcoming year. This, combined with ongoing issues with Pratt & Whitney engines and the financial impact of a new labor agreement expected to increase pilot salaries by about 34% over two years, paints a picture of an airline in financial disarray.
These factors clearly demonstrate the need for financial assistance. The proposed JetBlue-Spirit merger deal is a free-market solution to a problem that will affect the most vulnerable of consumers (those seeking low-cost, affordable flights). The alternative, according to the Wall Street Journal analysts, is that Spirit will have to liquidate, its assets will likely be acquired by larger carriers, and JetBlue will struggle to compete with the top airline companies: Delta (17.7%), American (17.2%), Southwest (16.9%) and United (16.1%), helping solidify these companies’ market dominance — furthermore creating difficult market entry for new airlines.
This court ruling proves an undermining of consumer interests, a lack of market understanding, and an overly cautious approach that threatens healthy market competition and growth in this country.
The proposed $3.8 billion acquisition of Spirit by JetBlue was much more than a mere corporate transaction; it was a partnership between two uniquely American companies aimed at creating a more equitable playing field in an airline industry currently dominated by major players. With a combined market share of only 10.5%, the merged entity of JetBlue and Spirit would still lag behind industry leaders like Delta, American, Southwest and United.
This fact alone casts doubt on the notion that their merger would substantially reduce competition.
The recent decision to block this merger reflects a broader approach from the current Biden administration to dismantle the structure of free-market solutions that have served as a benchmark for American economic freedom domestically and internationally for 247 years.
Furthermore, this decision by the administration hints at a political influence in antitrust enforcement which, unless reevaluated, will impede the progress and vitality of American enterprises at home and abroad.