photo by Jun SeitaVirgin Atlantic president Richard Branson has called upon the US Department of Transportation to reject a proposed alliance between American Airlines, British Airways and three other airlines, claiming that it would form a "monster monopoly" that would pose a serious threat to the survival of rival airlines and would mark the end of "red-hot competition."
In an address to the National Press Club in Washington last week, Branson warned that a tie-up would be "disastrous" for consumers, and highlighted the fact that American and British Airways, combined with their oneworld alliance partners, would control almost half of the takeoff and landing slots at London Heathrow. "It doesn’t make sense to encourage even less competition by allowing dominant carriers to increase their stranglehold by setting prices together and agreeing schedules," he said. "...Our arguments are as strong today as they were on the previous two occasions when BA and AA tried to merge. Their dominance has grown even further between then and now."
Under the proposed alliance, American, British Airways, Finnair, Iberia, and Royal Jordanian Airlines would receive antitrust immunity on transatlantic flights - something that has already been granted by the DOT to carriers in the rival SkyTeam and Star alliances. "This permission or antitrust immunity has already been granted to 10 airlines in Star and six in SkyTeam - including the recently merged and now world's largest airline Delta," said an American spokesperson, in an email to AFP, adding that the proposed alliance was "simply seeking to level the playing field."
But Branson predictably did not agree with this logic, stating: "I understand that it is tempting for regulators to say, 'We’ve given dispensation to one alliance, we should do likewise for others' as they’ve done previously. But they must resist temptation. Each anti-trust application must be considered on its merits and it’s clear that the application for a merger between BA and AA must be rejected."
Branson has lobbied against proposed two AA/BA tie-ups in the past (1997 and 2001), both of which failed due to regulatory concerns. American's argument that 'it's only fair that we get this too' certainly has credit to it, but the sticking point is likely to be Heathrow - the AA/BA presence there is already enormous. The DOT has six months to issue a ruling, so we'll just have to wait and see if Branson is successful in putting down a proposed AA/BA alliance for a third time.
Last month, former American CEO Robert Crandall said that "any objective observer would have to look very hard to find a way in which alliances have benefited consumers." He also believes that "airline alliances have been far more beneficial for international airlines than for US carriers, and for that reason alone, I think they should be disallowed." Interestingly, he also noted that if Star Alliance and SkyTeam are allowed their own antitrust agreements, "AA-BA should be permitted as well."