US judge blocks JetBlue from acquiring Spirit Airlines

US judge blocks JetBlue from acquiring Spirit Airlines

/ 09:25 AM January 17, 2024

US judge blocks JetBlue from acquiring Spirit Airlines

A Spirit Airlines aircraft prepares to depart San Diego International Airport in San Diego, California, U.S., Jan 16, 2024 after a federal judge on Tuesday blocked JetBlue Airways planned $3.8- billion acquisition of ultra-low-cost carrier. REUTERS/Mike Blake

BOSTON  -A federal judge on Tuesday blocked JetBlue Airways’ planned $3.8 billion acquisition of ultra-low-cost carrier Spirit Airlines after agreeing with the U.S. Department of Justice that the deal was anticompetitive and would harm consumers.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge William Young in Boston marked a victory for the White House in its efforts to prevent further concentration of the U.S. airline industry and raises questions about the viability of another recently proposed deal, Alaska Air’s planned acquisition of Hawaiian Airlines.


President Joe Biden, who has made boosting airline competition a top priority, called the ruling “a victory for consumers everywhere who want lower prices and more choices.”


The court’s ruling finding the deal violated U.S. antitrust law also called into question Spirit’s future. The ultra-low-cost carrier has struggled to turn a profit amid a run-up in operating costs and persistent supply chain problems.

READ: US antitrust enforcers release final version of merger guidelines

Spirit’s shares closed down about 47 percent on Tuesday after the ruling was issued, while JetBlue shares ended about 5 percent higher.

‘Stronger competitive pressure’

Young said that while a combined JetBlue-Spirit would likely place “stronger competitive pressure” on larger carriers that dominate the domestic airline market, “the consumers that rely on Spirit’s unique, low-price model would likely be harmed.”

He said the deal would eliminate Spirit’s low fares and its ability to put pressure on other higher-priced airlines, including JetBlue, to cut prices. Rivals on average cut prices 7 percent to 11 percent when Spirit enters a market, he said.

“The government has demonstrated that consumers value Spirit flights as a unique, economical product option,” Young wrote. “The removal of Spirit as an option for consumers, therefore, would constitute a cognizable harm.”


U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland called the ruling “a victory for tens of millions of travelers who would have faced higher fares and fewer choices had the proposed merger between JetBlue and Spirit been allowed to move forward.”

While Young ruled in the Justice Department’s favor, he did not go as far as the government had asked and broadly bar any combination of the two companies, saying he was only going to block the deal “as it currently stands.”

The judge, who at trial had questioned whether further asset divestitures could make the deal work, said “the courthouse doors remain open should the defendant airlines decide to try again.”

Some investors and analysts in the past had expressed concerns that Spirit’s troubles could hurt JetBlue after the merger. Some analysts had also suggested JetBlue renegotiate the deal, citing the fall in Spirit’s share price even before Tuesday’s ruling.

The airlines can appeal the ruling. In a joint statement, JetBlue and Spirit said they were evaluating “next steps as part of the legal process.” They said JetBlue had already “removed any reasonable anti-competitive concerns that the Department of Justice raised.”

READ: Spirit Airlines to negotiate with JetBlue Airways over its $3.6-billion bid

The Justice Department, along with Democratic state attorney generals from six states and the District of Columbia, had argued the JetBlue-Spirit deal would lead to fewer flights and higher prices for millions of Americans.

Fewer flights, higher prices

They said that allowing JetBlue to absorb its no-frills, budget rival Spirit would “extinguish a vital source of low-cost competitive disruption along more than 375 routes,” causing nearly $1 billion of net harm annually to consumers.

JetBlue’s lawyers argued that the case was a “misguided” challenge to a merger between the nation’s sixth- and seventh- largest airlines, which combined would control 10.2% of a domestic market dominated by four larger airlines.

Those four U.S. carriers – United Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines – control 80% of the market following a series of previous airline mergers that the federal government blessed.

Spirit was the first U.S. domestic carrier to allow passengers to pick what features of their flights they pay for, such as checked bags and food and drink service. Its model has pushed competing airlines to slash prices, the Justice Department said.

JetBlue is a higher-cost airline than Spirit. But it has historically maintained a low-cost model compared with larger airlines and been able to similarly pressure larger airlines to reduce prices when it enters a new route.

READ: Sluggish return of business travelers forces US airlines to rejig networks

The New York-based airline had tried to address U.S. regulators’ concerns by agreeing to divest gates and slots at key airports in New York City; Boston; Newark, New Jersey; and Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

The Justice Department’s case is part of a broader push by the Biden administration to aggressively step up antitrust enforcement, an initiative that has had mixed results in court.

JetBlue was already the focus of one of its earlier cases, with a different Boston judge, Leo Sorokin, in May siding with the government in finding that JetBlue’s U.S. Northeast partnership with American Airlines violated antitrust law.

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.

Subscribe to our daily newsletter

By providing an email address. I agree to the Terms of Use and acknowledge that I have read the Privacy Policy.

JetBlue subsequently decided to terminate the alliance. American Airlines is appealing Sorokin’s decision.

TAGS: airlines, competition, mergers

© Copyright 1997-2024 | All Rights Reserved

We use cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. By continuing, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. To find out more, please click this link.