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Though the D.O.J. Claims that Cheap Airlines Will be Helped by the American Airlines/U.S. Airways Merger, We've Heard That Song Before

In a sad development for the traveling American, the Department of Justice has dropped its opposition to the merger between American Airlines and U.S. Airways, settled the lawsuit it had brought against that combination, and announced it would permit this further monopolization of our skies.  When that same proposal was first announced several months ago, it seemed inconceivable that the two carriers would be permitted to become the largest single airline in the world.  Public opposition was violent and near-universal; a number of state Attorneys General filed strong protests; and the federal government was livid.

So what happened?  What happened was that the two airlines launched the most effective lobbying campaign that Washington, D.C. has seen in years.  It persuaded the Attorney General for Texas, and the public authorities of several other states, to drop their opposition (Texas was the first to cave, in a decision by a state attorney general who is now running for higher office). It enlisted the aviation-industry unions to launch a major public relations campaign in favor of the merger.  And after dozens of members of congress were also "persuaded" to support the plan (were campaign contributions a factor?), the Department of Justice finally lost its nerve and its crusading vigor.

Oh, it's true that the D.O.J. achieved a number of concessions from American and U.S. Air.  As a condition of the deal, the two airlines would give up certain landing and take-off slots at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. and LaGuardia Airport in New York.

They would give up certain "gates" in the airports of Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and Miami.  This would supposedly permit the low-cost airlines--like JetBlue, Southwest, Virgin America, Spirit, Alaska, Allegiant and Frontier--to operate many more of their budget-priced flights.

These concessions have been termed "minor" by numerous analysts, including one who wrote that they "don't even begin to deal" with the "unprecedented" power that the remaining four major airlines would have for airfare pricing.  And Southwest Airlines, the chief beneficiary of the newly available slot and gates, is no longer a really-low-cost airline.

As for those concessions themselves, we've heard them all before in previous airline mergers ("we will drop landing slots, we will drop gates").  Near-identical concessions were obtained when the Federal Government gave its blessing years ago to the merger of Continental with United Airlines, and Delta with Northwest.  And the net result has been a dramatic rise in airfares, and some of the most forbidding prices for flying that Americans have yet seen.  Holiday fares, as only one example, are up dramatically  since last year.

So now we enter into a new world of travel, one in which four carriers--Delta, United, Southwest and American--control an awesome percentage of most flights within the United States.  The notion that the remaining and relatively-small budget airlines will be able to compete with them seems utterly naive.

How, then, shall the cost-conscious traveler deal with this new situation of monopoly on most of the major routes?  Travelers wishing to save money will have no alternative but to choose flights leaving at dawn or late in the evening--the only low-cost alternatives to many cities.  Travelers concerned about fares will need to make a greater, time-consuming use of the airfare aggregators--companies like Kayak, Priceline, Do-Hop, Momondo, SkyScanner, who laboriously search all the possibilities for those occasional dates and times when airfares are low.

And many travelers will need to economize dramatically on the cost of their hotel and other accommodations at the destination, in order to offset what will undoubtedly be a major increase in fares.  They will need to rent cars from companies like Hertz' new FireFly that supply "high mileage" automobiles that should have been retired from service when their speedometers showed 100,000 or more miles.  They will need to cut down on the cost of their restaurant meals.

Now that American and U.S.Airways are the largest combined airline ever--now that we have three giant, sluggish "legacy" carriers rather than six competing ones--the rest of us must pull in our belts.  And hope for a drastically-revised national policy that might include, at some future date, a re-regulation of airfares, similar to what we demand of other public utilities. What was once a dynamic scene of competing carriers has become an arena for three--or, at most, four--public utilities.