Not Always an Antitrust Issue: Airline Edition

The Justice Department is gearing up to file an antitrust case against JetBlue and American Airlines over an alliance they recently formed. The Wall Street Journal reports:

The lawsuit, which could come as soon as Tuesday, is expected to argue that the recently forged alliance threatens competition and higher fares, the people said.

American and JetBlue announced their alliance in July 2020, saying boosting their offerings in the Northeast by marketing one another’s flights on certain routes would allow them to become more formidable competitors at the three New York area airports and in Boston.

Assume, for the sake of argument, that the American-JetBlue pact is anti-competitive (the airlines dispute this, and I have not yet reached a conclusion). Is antitrust enforcement the right tool for increasing competition? Probably not. Antitrust regulation has a number of built-in flaws that cannot be reformed.

Market conditions can change in a lot less time than it takes to conduct a trial, which is why the case over big IBM’s dominance in mainframe computing, filed in 1969, was eventually dropped—in 1982, when personal computers were taking over the market.

Competing in the courtroom takes resources away from competing in the market, and can have a chilling effect on efficiency-enhancing innovations and business practices.

And then there is regulatory capture, where businesses coopt regulators for their own purposes. It wouldn’t be surprising to see other airlines try to influence this case, just as rival software companies did during the Microsoft case in the late 1990s. Oracle went as far as attempting to bribe rivals’ office janitors to hand over trash that might have contained sensitive documents.

A better solution would be to repeal existing regulations that bar international airlines from operating domestic flights in the U.S.—which is essentially a Jones Act for airlines. That reform alone would expose American’s and JetBlue’s joint flights to hundreds of potential new competitors. It would require no new spending, no court costs, and no lawyer fees. The airlines could compete in the marketplace, not the courtroom, and those worried about increasing concentration in the airline industry would have far less to worry about.

Antitrust is trendy right now. Its high visibility is one reason why activists are calling for using antitrust enforcement everywhere from airlines to health care to live events—and not just against the Big Tech companies that garner most of the headlines.

When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But sometimes the correct tool for the job is a screwdriver or a saw. This is one case where the right tool is regulatory reform, not an antitrust prosecution.

For more CEI research on antitrust, see our dedicated antitrust website, as well as Wayne Crews’s and my paper “The Case against Antitrust Law.”

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