Why Delta is Interested in Buying American

When the news broke that Delta was sniffing around the possibility of making a bid for American while it sits in bankruptcy, there were a lot of people shaking their heads, thinking that the mere thought was ridiculous. I couldn’t disagree more. Delta could and should have a real interest here.

Delta is Crazy Like a Fox

What we’re seeing is Delta being really smart, and really aggressive. That’s fun to watch from an airline that used to just be a sleepy old Southerner. The first thing people say about this is . . . there’s no way it would pass anti-trust review. But is that true? I’m not an expert in anti-trust law, but I have no doubt that Delta has been actively working with its lawyers to see what would work and what wouldn’t. If Delta is truly expressing an interest, then it’s done its homework to make sure that it would even be a possibility under the law.

I think the key here is that I imagine Delta isn’t entirely interested in walking away with all of American. Remember when I first wrote about how US Airways should buy American, I suggested that maybe US Airways wouldn’t have much interest in LA or New York? Well, guess who would be interested? That’s right, Delta.

In LA, the market is highly fragmented. I can’t imagine any sort of anti-trust concern if Delta took over American’s operation there. It might even benefit LA by finally building up a stronger single carrier. Sure, the Asian oneworld partners would have a fit, but that’s not Delta’s problem, or the US government’s.

In New York, it might be a tougher sell, but it’s not really that much of a stretch. At JFK, JetBlue carries around 40 percent of the passengers already. So Delta and American combined wouldn’t be a monopoly by any measure. LaGuardia would probably be more of a concern, but the DOT could require some more slots to be auctioned off to low cost carriers and fix that problem right up. I’m sure Delta would be happy to comply if it means eliminating a full service competitor and sprinkling the slots around to other low cost guys.

Of course, this is just one possible scenario, Delta might want Miami as well here, or some other pieces. The point is that the default assumption that the big three airlines can’t combine isn’t true. There are creative ways that they could try to come together with other entities to make a proposal that could work. With American in bankruptcy, it’s really anybody’s game to win, except American’s.

Sure, American could stay as a standalone entity, but the oddsmakers (analysts) aren’t giving that a good chance of happening. When you go into bankruptcy, you lose absolute control of your company. That doesn’t mean that you can’t get out unscathed, but it means that others are going to take a real shot.

Do I think it would be better if Delta bought American? Nah. I mean, I think it’s good to have three large airlines in three separate airlines that can compete with each other. That doesn’t mean, however, that I’m against bits and pieces being moved around to make each remaining airline stronger. But would American be able to survive if Delta took New York and LA?

I don’t see why it couldn’t work if US Airways took the rest. Were I the surviving American in this case, I’d look to buy Alaska Airlines immediately to solidify at least one strong position on the west coast and take that partnership away from Delta. Not sure if that could happen or not, but the point is that there are opportunities for three large airlines to survive even if Delta “buys” American in some fashion.

Will it happen? I have no clue, but Delta would be stupid not to be sniffing around. (And in case you were wondering, United would be stupid TO be sniffing around because it’s hands are very full right now.)

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