After years of airline mergers that have dramatically reduced choices for travelers, the U.S. Justice Department has sued to halt what would be the largest airline marriage in U.S. history.
The Justice Department joined six states and the District of Columbia in a lawsuit Tuesday to block the proposed merger of US Airways and American Airlines. If successful, the government could slow a consolidation craze that has dramatically cut the number of major U.S. carriers.
A US Airways-American Airlines merger would create the world's largest airline, with more than 100,000 workers and 187 million passengers a year. The deal would put 70% of the U.S. market in the hands of just four major airlines — the others being United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines — a situation that worried authorities.
"There are many ways in which this transaction threatens competition," Assistant Atty. Gen. Bill Baer, who heads the Justice Department's antitrust division, said after filing the suit. "It's pretty messed up. It's bad for consumers."
In reducing the number of major domestic airlines in the U.S. to four from five, the proposed merger would "make it easier for the remaining airlines to cooperate, rather than compete, on price and service," the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit has clouded the future of American Airlines, which had planned to emerge from bankruptcy in the next few weeks to unite with US Airways and take on its larger competitors.
The legal challenge comes amid growing frustration among airline customers over rising fares, increased passenger fees and cuts in service and available seats.
"Everything is getting more expensive. We deserve better," said Tony Tran, 39, of Los Angeles, a frequent flier who landed at Los Angeles International Airport on Tuesday. "The prices aren't cheaper; they're getting higher. And the consumer gets hit."
Both airlines vowed to fight the lawsuit.
"We are mounting a vigorous and strong defense in federal court against the DOJ's case in order to bring our airlines and talented team members together as the new American Airlines," US Airways Chief Executive Doug Parker told employees in a letter Tuesday.
Some fliers at LAX opposed the lawsuit. "The government should get their hands out of it," said Robert Park, 89, of Hermosa Beach. "We have a free-enterprise system."
The government's case included internal communications among executives at US Airways, who complained about passenger demands to improve services and suggested that a blockbuster merger would ease that pressure.
In a 2011 email exchange, one senior executive vented about the need to install in-flight wireless Internet. He wrote: "[N]ext it will be more legroom. Then industry standard labor contracts. Then better wines. Then the ability to book on Facebook."
Parker, the CEO, wrote back: "Easy now. Consolidation will help stop much of the stupid stuff but inflight Internet is not one of them."
A spokesman for US Airways said the government lawsuit reached a "flawed conclusion" and that "these emails are taken out of context."
The legal roadblock comes late in the merger process. The two airlines have already received approvals from US Airways shareholders, the European Commission and the judge overseeing the bankruptcy proceedings of AMR Corp., the parent company of American Airlines.
US Airways and American compete directly on only 12 nonstop routes. But a government report said a merger would eliminate a key competitor on more than 1,600 other routes.
The bankruptcy judge was scheduled to rule Thursday on AMR's reorganization plan.
The suit came as good news for antitrust advocates who have been voicing opposition to the merger.
"It's about time that the Justice Department took a strong position on a highly concentrating airline merger," said Bert Foer, president of the American Antitrust Institute in Washington.