Planely Speaking: All Slotted Up: The new American Airlines and DCA

Planely Speaking

Guest Editor Aaron Newman
Aaron Newman (small)

All Slotted Up: The new American Airlines and DCA

By Aaron Newman

By now we’ve all heard of the Justice Departments lawsuit filed on Aug. 13 to stop the $11 billion deal between US Airways Group (US Airways) and AMR Corporation (American Airlines). The DOJ argues the merger would violate antitrust laws because it will lead to higher airfares, less competition on high profile routes and therefore higher costs to the traveling public. In November, a judge will hear the case without a jury and decide whether the merger should go forward. With just under two months before the November 25th antitrust case involving American Airlines and U.S. Airways, I will be spending the next 2-3 months dissecting three topics in depth likely to be crucial topics in the courtroom.

A hot topic in talks between the Justice Department and the corporations is whether the airlines will agree to sell slots; takeoff and landing rights, to reduce their dominance at Reagan National Airport outside Washington, D.C. Airlines must possess slots which give them rights to one takeoff or landing per day.  Three miles south of downtown Washington D.C., DCA is the preferred airport in the D.C. beltway. The airport provides easy transit points for politicians and professionals looking to be downtown within minutes. The only problem…the airport is slot restricted in an effort to direct passengers to the suburban and more distant Dulles International Airport (IAD).

DCA-IAD Regional Map

Source: Nationalrealitybiz.com

DCA is one of a few airports in the nation where regulations limit the number of flights. Slots at DCA are particularly valuable for airlines, since many people will pay a premium to fly from convenient DCA instead of more distant Dulles or BWI.  For example, JetBlue recently leased 8 daily round trips from US Airways at a cost of $40 million, used for increased frequencies to Boston. U.S. Airways currently claims DCA as its fourth largest hub and provides nonstop service to 71 airports from Reagan National, and faces no nonstop competitors on 55 of those routes (as of July 2013). Doug Parker, CEO of U.S. Airways and post-merger American, says DCA will remain a critical east coast hub for the new airline. Post-merger, US Airways will lessen capacity to existing American Airlines destinations. This will allow US Airways to expand its hub operations at Reagan, adding new small city destinations in the eastern half of the United States, a strong argument in the airlines attempt to retain all 68% of its slots.

Source: U.S. Department of Transportation

With U.S. Airways already claiming 56% of slots at DCA, the new airline will claim 68% post-merger, it’s anticipated by industry insiders that the new American will be forced to concede slots in order to satisfy the courts and complete a merger. United and Continental had to lease slots at Newark Liberty to Southwest in order to complete their 2010 merger, according to this report by Business Travel News. One argument against divesting slots at DCA is that many are used for small regional cities throughout the East Coast. US Airways surprisingly only carries 35% of all passengers at DCA despite holding 56% slots. This is due to the fact that many of the flights are used for smaller cities on turboprops and regional jets. CEO of U.S. Airways, Doug Parker has been arguing that if his airline has to divest slots, other airlines will simply use them to fly to large hub cities. Some members of Congress have even sent a letter asking for US Airways/American to keep its slots so their own constituencies can keep their flights.

DCA Route Map

In this report by Reuters, it gives detail of a recent attempt by JetBlue management and CEO, David Berger to persuade lawmakers to take away a portion of DCA slots in the name of anti-competitiveness. Berger suggests that the new American should not exceed the current 55% threshold at DCA. “JetBlue believes that the merger, absent meaningful action by the Department of Justice, will make an unbalanced competitive situation at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) even worse,” Robert Land, JetBlue’s senior vice president stated in a recent letter to Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York).

My Take

It’s unlikely that the new American will escape the trial without conceding slots at DCA. I suspect the new American will retain between 55 and 59 percent of slots at DCA. This will result in some regional cities losing service, cities like Huntsville AL, Bangor ME, and White Plains, NY. It’s probably important to note that the combined American will hold roughly a 49% market share at Reagan National, US Airways today only holds a 35%   market share despite holding 56% of the slots. Regional flights are made possible because US Airways has such a large slot allotment at Reagan. The US Airways operation at DCA is a secondary connecting airport because of the frequency enabled by the slot holdings. If the new airline were forced to divest a larger percentage of slots the hub operation would begin to look different than it does today – the economics of regional flights make it unworkable.

The bigger question is how the remaining 8-12 percent of slots be divided among other airlines? This will be an interesting development going forward.  I agree with Parker that large hub cities will be the winners in this case. Cities like Newark NJ, Atlanta GA, Chicago IL Midway, etc. In conclusion, there are currently four major slot restricted airports in the U.S.; New York JFK, La Guardia (LGA), Newark (EWR), and Washington Reagan (DCA). Two different airlines have a market share that is greater than the important 49% number; Delta at La Guardia and United at Newark. Both of those market conditions were granted approval by the DOJ without going to trial. So, why is this merger and DCA suddenly being treated differently?

Top Copyright Photo: Marcelo F. De Biasi/AirlinersGallery.com.

American Airlines: AG Slide Show

US Airways: AG Slide Show

Bottom Copyright Photo: Marcelo F. De Biasi/AirlinersGallery.com.