The American Airlines/US Airways merger talks are on hold due to the ongoing antitrust trial led by the Department of Justice. The D.O.J. is concerned, from the perspective of protecting consumers’ interests, that the resulting airline would have too much market power in many of its locations. Though this is true (assuming nothing about the airlines’ business was changed and no assets were divested), the underlying issues are broader than that.
This is an inevitable story of consolidation and creative destruction and the cyclicality of the two. This proposed merger — or one like it – will happen. It’s just a matter of time. But let’s compare an American Airlines/US Airways pairing with two, comparable, big-headline mergers.
Back in 2012, the music industry consolidated from four big players to three as EMI was split up. Its music business went to Vivendi’s Universal Music Group and its publishing business to Sony/ATV. In this deal, similar concerns of market power led the European Commission to stipulate that Universal had to sell a third of EMI’s assets. And that deal went through.
Meantime, ending in a different fate in 2011, AT&T finally admitted defeat in its attempted bid for T-Mobile. It would have consolidated the cohort of this nation’s cellular operators from four to three. In this latter case, the firms were up against both the D.O.J. and the Federal Communications Commission.
So why are airline mergers inevitable? It’s because, in many ways, the passenger airline industry is more like the music industry than the wireless-operator industry.