United's "urge to merge"

The world of airline mergers has been buzzing since last week's report that United Airlines and Delta Airlines were being pushed by Pardus Capital Management (which owns a sizable stake in both airlines) to merge. Delta CEO Richard Anderson stated that "there have been no talks with United regarding any type of consolidation transaction and there are no such ongoing discussions." In a press release, Delta said that it "will not speculate on possible airline consolidation".

It's no secret that United has been shopping around for a merger partner for some time. They haven't bought any new planes in quite some time, and United has relatively thin profit margins and high debt.

That said, rumors have been flying for the last few years that United would find a merger partner. These partners have included Continental (which already said no) and Northwest (which wouldn't work out because the two airlines both have strong Midwest hubs) - almost everyone except American (a United-American merger couldn't happen because the combined airline would be too big). The latest to crop up on the aviation forums involves jetBlue, since the two airlines have complementary fleets/networks. United would use jetBlue as an opportunity to become a player again at JFK, which would tie in nicely with international feed from Star Alliance carriers and make it more competitive on the East Coast. And a United-jetBlue merger would also put an end to the fight at Washington-Dulles between the two airlines.

But a United-jetBlue merger isn't too likely, and any merger wouldn't be a cure-all fix for United. Even though United may be holding out on buying new planes to attract merger partners, they're going to need to upgrade eventually to keep up with competitors. And employee-management relations aren't very good, either. Merger or no merger, United really needs to address these issues (and others) if it wants to remain a viable competitor in the industry.


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