Did Airlines Collude to Keep Air Fares High?

Did Airlines Collude to Keep Air Fares High?

REUTERS/Lisi Niesner
By Suelain Moy

For months now, oil and gas prices have been dropping—and that includes jet fuel.  So why haven’t airline ticket prices dropped as well? That’s one of the questions the Justice Department wants answered as it investigates the possibility of collusion among carriers to keep airfares high.

The DOJ also wants to know if companies conspired to limit the number of available seats in order to drive prices up. Yesterday, the Associated Press broke the news that major U.S. carriers had received a letter demanding copies of all communications the airlines had with each other, Wall Street analysts, and major shareholders about their plans for passenger-carrying capacity, going back to January 2010. The civil antitrust investigation is focusing on whether airlines illegally indicated to each other how quickly they would add new flights, routes, and extra seats in an effort to prop up ticket prices.

Related: 6 Sneaky Fees That Are Making Airlines a Bundle

Just minutes after the news broke, stocks of the major U.S. airlines fell four to five percent, with the S&P 500 airlines index off more than four percent. Until now, the U.S. airline industry had been enjoying record profits, due to increasing numbers of Americans flying and a huge drop in the price of jet fuel. In April, the price of jet fuel was $1.94 per gallon, a decrease of 34 percent from the previous year.

The investigation marks a notable shift for the Justice Department, which approved the merger of American Airlines and US Airways back in November 2013, despite previously blocking it over concerns that the airlines would collude on fares. The probe could signal a more aggressive approach on antitrust enforcement, under the strong leadership of Loretta Lynch, who was confirmed in April.

Justice Department spokesperson Emily Pierce confirmed that the department was investigating potential “unlawful coordination” among some airlines.

Just two weeks ago, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) urged the Justice Department to investigate what he called “anti-competitive, anti-consumer conduct and misuse of market power in the airline industry.”

Related: United Airlines Bullish on First Quarter from Lower Fuel Costs

Since 2008, various mergers have resulted in four major airlines (down from nine)—American, Delta, Southwest, and United—controlling about 80 percent of all domestic air travel. All four airlines have confirmed that they received the letter and that they were cooperating with the investigation.

According to Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the average domestic airfare rose 13 percent from 2009 to 2014 (adjusted for inflation). The average domestic flight last year cost $391. In the past year alone, airlines received an additional $3.6 billion from bag fees and another $3 billion from reservation-change fees. All of the major airlines—American Airlines, United Continental Holdings, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines, JetBlue Airways, and Alaska Air Group—posted record profits with a consolidated net income of over $3 billion during the first quarter of 2015.

Chart of the Day: Long Way to Go on Coronavirus Testing

Healthcare workers with ChristianaCare test people with symptoms of the coronavirus in a drive-thru in the parking lot of Chase
Jennifer Corbett
By The Fiscal Times Staff

The White House on Friday unveiled plans for a new effort to ramp up testing for Covid-19, which experts say is an essential part of limiting the spread of the virus. This chart from Vox gives a sense of just how far the U.S. has to go to catch up to other countries that are dealing with the pandemic, including South Korea, the leading virus screener with 3,692 tests per million people. The U.S., by comparison, has done about 23 tests per million people as of March 12.

After Spending $2 Billion, Air Force Bails Out on Planned Upgrades of B-2 Bombers

The B-2 Spirit stealth bomber flies over the Missouri Sky after taking off from the Whiteman Air For..
© Hyungwon Kang / Reuters
By The Fiscal Times Staff

The Air Force has scrapped a planned upgrade of its B-2 stealth bomber fleet — even after spending $2 billion on the effort — because defense contractor Northrup Grumman didn’t have the necessary software expertise to complete the project on time and on budget, Bloomberg’s Anthony Capaccio reports, citing the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer.

Ellen Lord, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, told reporters that the nearly $2 billion that had already been spent on the program wasn’t wasted because “we are still going to get upgraded electronic displays.”

Big Hurdle for Sanders’ Plan to Cancel Student Debt

Chip East / REUTERS
By The Fiscal Times Staff

Bernie Sanders wants to eliminate $1.6 trillion in student debt, to be paid for by a tax on financial transactions, but doing so won’t be easy, says Josh Mitchell of The Wall Street Journal.  

The main problem for Sanders is that most Americans don’t support the plan, with 57% of respondents in a poll last fall saying they oppose the idea of canceling all student debt. And the politics are particularly thorny for Sanders as he prepares for a likely general election run, Mitchell says: “Among the strongest opponents are groups Democrats hope to peel away from President Trump: Rust Belt voters, independents, whites, men and voters in rural areas.”

Number of the Day: $7 Million

NY mayor cites climate stance in endorsing Obama
By The Fiscal Times Staff

That’s how much Michael Bloomberg is spending per day in his pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination, according to new monthly filings with the Federal Election Commission. “In January alone, Bloomberg dropped more than $220 million on his free-spending presidential campaign,” The Hill says. “That breaks down to about $7.1 million a day, $300,000 an hour or $5,000 per minute.”