Joining Forces

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February 8, 2022

THIS WEEK, Frontier airlines announced it would acquire Spirit Airlines, thus turning two of the nation’s biggest low-cost carriers (LCCs) into one.

What does this mean for consumers? Most importantly, fingers crossed, it means we won’t have to look at Spirit’s ugly yellow planes anymore. Beyond that, I really don’t know. Not a lot, probably. Maybe fares will go up in some markets. Maybe they won’t. Any time airlines combine forces, there’s a resulting media chorus about all the awful ways in which the merger will impact travel: higher prices, fewer flight options, and so on. The actual repercussions tend to be subtle.

Frontier’s main hub is in Denver. Spirit’s headquarters are in Florida, with a concentration on eastern cities, as well as numerous routes into Latin America and the Caribbean. In this respect the merger makes sense, with the two company’s route structures complementing one another. A “classic” merger, if you will. Once approved by regulators, the new carrier will be the fifth largest airline in the United States, just behind American, United, Delta, and Southwest.

Frontier was established in 1994, and operates about 110 aircraft. It’s not to be confused with the original Frontier airlines, which collapsed in 1986 after a boondoggled takeover by PeopleExpress. Spirit was founded in 1993, and currently flies 175 planes, all of them of the Airbus A320 series.

Mergers, acquisitions, takeovers. Consolidation is the story of commercial aviation in this country. Have a look at the lineages of American, Delta and United. Those three alone carry the DNA of at least twenty carriers absorbed over the years. The list below highlights the most significant mergers since Deregulation in 1979. Today we have fewer airlines overall, but there’s plenty of robust competition. Fares remain historically cheap and there are flights going everywhere, all the time. Despite waves of consolidation, the fallout for travelers has been largely positive.

JOINING FORCES. THE BIGGEST MERGERS OF MODERN TIMES:

2016. Alaska Airlines purchases Virgin America
2013. American Airlines purchases US Airways
2010. United Airlines merges with Continental
2010. Southwest Airlines buys AirTran (formerly ValuJet)
2008. Delta Air Lines acquires Northwest
2005. America West Airlines purchases US Airways
2001. American Airlines takes over what’s left of TWA
1991. Delta buys the ailing Pan Am’s transatlantic network
1989. USAir takes over Piedmont Airlines
1988. USAir acquires Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA)
1987. American acquires AirCal (formerly Air California)
1986. United buys Pan Am’s transpacific and Asia network
1986. TWA takes over Ozark Airlines
1985. Delta Air Lines and Western Airlines combine
1986. Northwest merges with Republic Airlines
1980. Pan Am acquires National Airlines
1979. Southern and North Central combine to form Republic

While mergers often appear uneventful on the outside, things can become quite contentious on the inside, among the employees. This especially true within the pilot ranks. Seniority controls everything for pilots, from which plane you fly to the quality of your monthly schedule, and when pilot groups are suddenly combined, the seniority list has to be rebuilt in a way that is more or less equitable to both sides. As the saying goes, good luck with that.

Sometimes, when one airline buys another, the airline doing the buying simply takes the entire roster of the airline being bought and moves it to the bottom. In other words, if airline A purchases airline B, forming airline C, all of the airline B pilots are now junior to all of the airline A pilots. Pilots call this “stapling.” This is what happened when American took over TWA.

The Delta-Northwest integration in 2008 was about as seamless and peaceful as the pilots (or their management) could have hoped for. In the cases of American-TWA, or Northwest-Republic, on the other hand, things didn’t go so smoothly. The “green book” pilots from Republic spent two decades clashing with the “red book” pilots of Northwest. To this day many former TWA pilots, some of whom spent years on furlough after their airline was bought by American, feel they were tossed under the bus.

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AIRLINES OF THE PAST, Part 1
AIRLINES OF THE PAST, PART 2

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