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May 26, 2024

Federal Judge Blocks JetBlue’s $3.8 Billion Takeover of Spirit Airlines on Antitrust Grounds

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Jan 18, 2024

In a major setback for JetBlue’s growth ambitions, a federal judge ruled on January 16th, 2024 to block the budget airline’s proposed $3.8 billion acquisition of rival Spirit Airlines. The U.S. Justice Department had sued last year to halt the deal over concerns it would lead to higher fares, less choice, and reduced competition.

Judge Finds Compelling Evidence of Consumer Harm from Merger

U.S. District Judge Lydia Kay Griggsby sided with the Justice Department in finding that the tie-up between the nation’s 6th and 7th largest carriers would substantially lessen competition in violation of antitrust law.

In her 113-page ruling, Griggsby wrote that both the DOJ and six states that joined the lawsuit “established a prima facie case that the merger is likely to be anticompetitive.” She highlighted overlapping flight routes and evidence that head-to-head competition between JetBlue and Spirit has led both airlines to offer lower fares.

Allowing further consolidation among “the most significant airlines”, Griggsby concluded, would likely result in fare increases and other consumer harms – concerns that “outweigh any benefits achieved through the merger.” Both JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes and Spirit chief executive Ted Christie expressed disappointment at the decision and said they are reviewing their options.

Merger Collapse Leaves Spirit’s Future Uncertain

With JetBlue’s takeover bid now blocked, Spirit Airlines finds itself in a vulnerable position. The low-cost carrier faces growing financial pressures, including from soaring fuel costs and ongoing operational issues, prompting some analysts to warn of possible bankruptcy.

“Without JetBlue, Spirit lacks a path forward as an independent airline,” said aviation consultant Mike Boyd.

Spirit had previously agreed to a lower, $2.9 billion merger deal with Denver-based Frontier Airlines last year before pulling out in favor of JetBlue’s richer offer. But with JetBlue now forced out of the picture, analysts see few good remaining options for the struggling airline. An attempt to revive talks with Frontier appears unlikely to succeed.

The collapse of the acquisition sent Spirit’s stock plunging over 50% on January 16th, wiping out billions in market value, while JetBlue shares jumped 7.4%.

Timeline of JetBlue’s Blocked Takeover Attempt

Date Event
February 7, 2022 Spirit announces $2.9 billion merger agreement with Frontier Airlines
April 5, 2022 JetBlue makes unsolicited $3.6 billion bid for Spirit
May 2, 2022 Spirit rejects improved $3.2 billion offer from Frontier
May 16, 2022 Spirit enters $3.8 billion deal to be bought by JetBlue
September 29, 2022 Justice Department sues to block JetBlue-Spirit merger
January 10-13, 2023 Trial held on antitrust lawsuit
January 16, 2024 Federal judge rules against acquisition, blocking deal

DOJ Lawsuit Argued Merger Would Raise Fares and Limit Choices

The Justice Department warned the tie-up would “extinguish Spirit as an independent competitor” and pave the way for coordinated fare increases. With fewer airlines and less competition, particularly in Florida and the Northeast, the DOJ contended travellers would face higher ticket prices and fewer flight options.

Six states plus the District of Columbia joined the DOJ challenge, arguing JetBlue and Spirit compete intensely on price and their merger should not be allowed.

In defending the deal, JetBlue disputed claims it would hike fares post-merger and instead vowed to lower Spirit’s notoriously high fees while expanding flying options for consumers. But the judge ultimately sided with the government in finding the acquisition anti-competitive despite potential consumer benefits touted by the airlines.

Appeal Possible But Unlikely to Succeed

JetBlue and Spirit could appeal Judge Griggsby’s ruling. However, experts give slim chances of success given the detailed factual findings backing her decision.

“Appeals courts generally defer heavily to lower courts on fact-intensive merger cases like this one,” explained George Washington University antitrust professor William Kovacic. “The odds are very much against reversal.”

Any appeal would also take many months to resolve, further prolonging uncertainty. Most analysts expect both airlines to instead finally move on and refocus on their independent operations.

More Airline Consolidation on Horizon Despite Ruling

While blocking this specific tie-up, Judge Griggsby’s opinion left the door open to other airline mergers passing legal muster. She wrote the ruling should not be interpreted as imposing a “sweeping prohibition on any large airline merger.”

With the failure of the JetBlue deal, experts now expect a wave of fresh consolidation talks across the industry. Hawaiian Airlines confirmed it continues to explore a potential combination with Alaska Air Group after earlier negotiations paused last year.

Most analysts say further mergers are inevitable given ongoing pressures on airlines from higher fuel costs and growing labor demands. Tougher antitrust scrutiny will force carriers to make strong public interest arguments, however, for any future deals. How regulators assess competitive effects will likely determine which, if any, major transactions ultimately receive clearance.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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