8:31 PM EST, February 19, 2013
Every time two airlines merge, the same questions arise: Who wins? Who loses?
And what will it mean for consumers?
Because no two mergers are the same — each involves a unique set of routes, cultures and equipment — there are no universal answers.
But the planned merger of American Airlines and US Airways has led to a common and frequent refrain: The number of airlines in the industry is getting mighty small.
The recently announced marriage essentially shortens the field to four major domestic players: American, United, Delta and Southwest, each of which has been a party in a major merger in recent years.
The mergers are coming quickly enough that industry analysts have warned that the consolidation eventually could mean higher fares.
At the forefront has been Charlie Leocha, of the nonprofit Consumer Travel Alliance, who said he favored Southwest's 2010 merger with AirTran because it increased competition by essentially adding a new airline with a national footprint. With the American-US Airways merger, he said, "Consumers are getting nothing."
"The airlines aren't even trying to say that there's a benefit for consumers," Leocha said. "The harm will be that our competition is being reduced by 20 percent. The ability of the airlines to raise their prices is becoming much, much stronger."
But that doesn't mean it will happen immediately.
"I think there is still enough competition to keep fares in check," said Brian Kelly, who blogs on the airline industry at thepointsguy.com.
(Indeed, in Chicago, where I most often originate, American and United long have been engaged in a dance that usually keeps fares reasonable. That said, the addition of Virgin America to O'Hare International Airport forced both airlines to cut the cost of flights to the West Coast.)
Kelly said he is optimistic about what a more robust American Airlines will mean for consumers but the pairing "has the potential to become quite a clash of cultures."
US Airways has succeeded with bare-bones practicality, he said, remaining relatively inexpensive while lacking frills. American has built a reputation of greater customer service that includes well regarded first-class cabins and the industry's first frequent-flier programs.
What will be the identity of the new American Airlines? With US Airways' Chief Executive Doug Parker heading the new company, that airline's more spartan ways could win.
Otherwise the effects of this merger will depend largely on where you live and where you want to go. Regions with a heavy presence from both airlines — like Miami and Fort Lauderdale — could see fewer flights as the new American streamlines itself. Phoenix, a hub for US Airways, might not make sense for significant attention from a new American Airlines likely to be more focused on Los Angeles.
Ultimately, said Gabe Saglie, senior editor of Travelzoo, travelers will be responsible for negotiating the shrinking airline landscape.
"I'm not pro-merger, but this is the new normal," he said. "Consumers in this new era are having to be much more proactive than in the past, being savvy about when and how we fly. The flexible consumer will still find ways to fly."
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