Fallen American Airlines could be next to merge … with JetBlue?

American Airlines used to be the largest airline in the industry – now it’s third. Merger activity has narrowed the field, with SouthwestAirTran and United-Continental the latest deals that hit the sector. So, all eyes are on who will succumb to the urge to merge next, and American is being eyed as the next player.

According to a Forbes blog post, analysts from Morningstar believe that American Airlines “needs to make a big splash” to remain a player in an increasingly competitive market. The post continues:

“Once the industry’s largest carrier, [American Airlines] is now the third-largest…and any scale advantage it may have garnered is gone,” the Morningstar analysts write. “Ironically, AMR is at a substantial disadvantage, given that it steered clear of bankruptcy during the recession,” [Basili] Alukos and [Adam] Fleck say, pointing out that American’s labor rate is the industry’s highest on an equivalent basis.

So, who’s the right partner for American? The analysts at Morningstar are looking at JetBlue, especially given the latter’s “lighter cost structure.” Notes founder of Training the Street and former M&A investment banker Scott Rostan, “Three dominoes have fallen – Delta/Northwest, UAL/Continental and Southwest/AirTran.” He sees Alaska, Frontier and JetBlue as likely to make some noise.

[photo by Andrew Morrell Photography via Flickr]

British Airways, American Airlines, and Iberia in transatlantic tie-up

British Airways has signed a “tie-up” deal with American Airlines to share passengers and costs between the European Union and North America. Two non-EU nations, Switzerland and Norway, are also covered in the agreement.

BA says the deal will be worth $7 billion a year and will give passengers greater access to discounted fares. They’ll also get better connections and access to the airlines’ global network.

The deal, which has been in the works since 2008, only received regulatory approval this summer after rival carriers complained that it would create a near-monopoly. BA and Iberia merged last year. The current tie-in deal with AA is not a merger, but instead a close cooperation agreement to integrate ground operations and other aspects of the airlines. This will reduce costs by getting rid of overlapping services, and if these savings are passed on to the customers then there could indeed be a reduction in fares. With competition as fierce as ever, BA, Iberia, and AA will want to make this deal as marketable as possible.

The joint venture will being in October. Stay tuned to see how it turns out.

[Photo courtesy Fly For Fun via Gadling’s flickr pool]

Southwest uses AirTran for access to business travelers

The key to success in the airline industry is the business traveler. This category flies often, has less flexibility in pricing and spends more on flights than a leisure traveler could possibly imagine. So, it’s hardly surprising that Southwest‘s acquisition of AirTran – a $1.42 billion transaction – could help deliver greater share of the white collar travel crowd to the low-cost carrier.

According to MSNBC:

Southwest – which currently serves key cities such as Dallas, Chicago, Denver, Phoenix and Baltimore – has long been considered a vacationer’s airline. But it has lured corporate road warriors with offers like Business Select fares that cost more but promise priority boarding, extra frequent-flier credit and a free drink.

So, we’re looking at an expansion of Southwest’s strategy into a more lucrative market. Southwest has already proved that it can thrive in the volatile leisure market, ostensibly more challenging than catering to the business crowd. It seems as though this strategic shift is as close to a “sure thing” as one can imagine in the airline industry.

The acquisition also provides Southwest with international routes, as it picks up AirTran’s access to Mexico and the Caribbean.
[photo by AGeekMom via Flickr]

What the Southwest/AirTran merger means for consumers

Southwest Airlines announced yesterday that it will acquire AirTran in a cash plus stock deal.

Here’s what to expect:

1.) Good news for AirTran passengers and travel to/from/through Atlanta in general. Southwest has better service than AirTran, and lower fees (assuming that Southwest keeps the low/no-fee model, see number 4, below). Southwest is not keeping the AirTran brand.

2.) Southwest and AirTran don’t have much route overlap, so the merger in and of itself won’t lead to higher fares. But both airlines offer aggressive airfare sales almost weekly. We’ll see fewer of these, and fares will inch up. Remember, though, that fares can only go so high before consumers stay home, drive, take the BoltBus, or Amtrak. One route that does overlap is Boston to Baltimore, which both airlines fly nonstop for $78 round-trip; but JetBlue flies the route at the same fare, so as long as there are two airlines flying nonstop on the route, prices will stay reasonable. (In fact, Baltimore probably has the most overlapping routes, so we expect fares to go up there.)

3.) More fare pressure if other airlines continue the merger dance. American and US Air must be in panic mode as Southwest continues to grow. What next? An American/US Air marriage? Frontier/Midwest combine with USAir? JetBlue+American? The Southwest/AirTran merger came out of the blue, so anything and everything could be on the table.

4.) This impacts Delta, at least at first, the most. Will Delta eliminate checked bag and ticket change fees on competing routes to/from/through Atlanta to compete with Southwest’s fee model? Or will Southwest add fees? AirTran was a minor thorn in Delta’s side, but Southwest is going be a major thorn. AirTran was not a particularly healthy airline financially, and Southwest is.

5.) Southwest now becomes an international airline, if it keeps AirTran’s routes to Aruba, the Bahamas, etc. It also becomes a multi-aircraft airline, if it keeps AirTran’s Boeing 717’s along with Southwest’s 737 fleet.6.) Silver lining: as with all mergers of this kind, a plus is that if your flight is delayed or canceled you can now be re-routed over a much bigger route structure.

7.) It’s doubtful that Southwest will keep AirTran’s business class cabins, instead moving the airline to Southwest’s one-cabin model. Same for advance seat selection, which AirTran currently offers.

8.) The merger should win speedy Justice Department and DOT approval, since there is virtually no route overlap between the two airlines.

George Hobica is the founder of Airfarewatchdog™, the most inclusive source of airfare deals that have been researched and verified by experts. Airfarewatchdog compares fares from all airlines and includes the increasing number of airline-site-only and promo code fares.

[Flickr photo via gTarded]

Airline mergers could lead to fare “creep”

The Southwest/AirTran merger isn’t expected to push fares much higher. The disappearance of seats that comes with airline consolidation would make you think that prices are about to rise, as the fundamental commodity of the airline industry becomes increasingly scarce. But, we’re not close to that point yet, notes USA Today:

“We’re not at the tipping point,” says George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com. “I don’t think fares will be impacted much until we have three legacy carriers and one discount carrier remaining.”

The number of seats, however, is shrinking across the airline industry. Since September 2007, the number of domestic seats available has fallen 10 percent.

According to Hobica, look for fares to “creep upward,” but not at a rate that will horrify customers, a position supported by Frank Werner, associate professor of finance at Fordham University. He tells USA Today: “Generally, airline mergers remove competition from the skies, leading to higher prices. This will happen in markets where the combined Southwest/AirTran will not have a dominant market share.”

[photo by SkilliShots via Flickr]