Following on the approval granted by the EU last week, the US Department of Transportation has approved the request from American Airlines, British Airways, and Iberia to have anti-trust immunity on their service in the highly competitive and lucrative transatlantic market. The approval was granted 12 years after AA and BA initially requested such permission and after being denied repeatedly for most of that interim period. The approval is not without conditions, but generally they are minimal compared to the benefits that the airlines will receive from this approval.
The airlines will be required to give up 4 daily slot-pairs at London’s Heathrow airport, two of which will be ear-marked for service between London and Boston. This divestiture requirement is less strict than that required by the EU and significantly less than some competitors, namely Virgin Atlantic, would have liked to see. The DoT dismissed Virgin Atlantic’s concerns rather abruptly,
Furthermore, Virgin Atlantic’s analysis of the constraints at Heathrow airport does not prove that the agreements are anti-competitive and should, therefore, be disapproved. We directly addressed the issue of Heathrow access in the Show-Cause Order. Even though the immunized oneworld members will collectively hold almost half of Heathrow slots, there are still a number of other competitors at Heathrow. There are also some important mitigating factors that Virgin Atlantic does not adequately consider. First, since the provisional application of the U.S.-EU open-skies agreement, at least three major airlines have begun serving the United States from Heathrow, and the overall U.S.-Heathrow market has enjoyed an expansion and diversification of services.27 The new entrants have enhanced competition and will continue to exert competitive discipline in the market when the joint venture is implemented.
The DoT is correct that there have been a number of new entrants into the Heathrow market but those companies have paid a sizable sum for those slots. Moreover, fares have increased significantly in the US-London market. It is not clear that competitive discipline has truly remained even with the competition, and this approval will reduce competition in the market.
Also interesting in the filings is the support that the oneworld partners received from parties who are exposed to potential harm from the move in terms of reduced competition. The Dallas-Ft. Worth airport authority supported the application even though BA and AA are the only carriers offering non-stop service to Heathrow from the airport. The fact that is is a major hub for AA certainly doesn’t hurt the claim, but ultimately both the airport and the DoT are supporting the idea that connecting traffic is sufficient to preclude anti-competition concerns.
As DFW pointed out in its reply, the connecting services available in the nonstop overlap markets discipline the fares charged for nonstop service. For example, in the case of the Dallas/Ft. Worth-London route, which concerned Virgin Atlantic because it will effectively have one competitor in the nonstop market following the transaction, we determined that approximately one-quarter of the passengers already use connecting services in the overall city-pair.
The approval of this request was not at all unexpected, though the very light divestiture requirements are somewhat so. The DoT has previously approved similar deals for SkyTeam and Star Alliance; continuing to deny similar benefits to oneworld would amount to a regulatory competitive disadvantage being applied to the carriers. Fares will be higher in many cases, not lower. It is rare that reducing competition results in anything else; that the DoT can suggest otherwise is disheartening. It is even more confusing when considering the restrictions that the DoT applied to the proposed Delta/US Airways slot swaps which would have similar impact on competition.
- British Airways – Iberia merger and ATI approved by EU
- The Skies are Open!
- Slot swaps galore in New York and Washington, DC
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