Timing of antitrust trial appears to favor airlines seeking merger

Justice Department filed lawsuit to halt deal between American Airlines and US Airways
American Airlines and US Airways planes are parked at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. The Justice Department has filed a lawsuit to stop the airlines' planned merger, claiming that combining the companies would harm consumers by reducing flights and competition.AP

WASHINGTON — A decision Friday by a federal district judge to schedule a November trial could work in favor of American Airlines and US Airways in their quest to fend off a government lawsuit and create the world's largest airline by year end, according to a range of industry experts.

In a courtroom conference at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly seemed skeptical of the Justice Department's request for a March trial date, calling it "too far off."

Speaking outside the courthouse Friday, lawyers for the airlines confidently predicted victory. "We're going to win," said Rich Parker, an attorney for US Airways.

But antitrust experts say the airlines shouldn't dismiss the ability of the Justice Department to flex its muscles in its attempt to block the $11 billion deal — nor should they underestimate a "tough-minded" judge with a deep background in antitrust cases, including a government lawsuit against Microsoft. That case ultimately ended in a settlement. "She'll put the government through its paces, as well as the industry," said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.

The airlines and many industry observers reacted with surprise earlier this month when the Justice Department's Antitrust Division filed suit against the merger; six states and the District of Columbia joined the lawsuit. The department had approved three large airline mergers in recent years: Delta-Northwest, United-Continental and Southwest-AirTran.

But the department successfully blocked AT&T's attempt to purchase rival T-Mobile in 2011, a $39 billion deal that would have created the nation's largest cellphone provider. After the Senate in December confirmed William Baer as the Justice Department's antitrust chief, the department sued to block a merger of two large beer makers. It later reached a settlement with the companies.

After meeting with the two sides behind closed doors Friday, Kollar-Kotelly scheduled the trial for the week of Thanksgiving. The trial could last from 10 to 15 days, with both sides seeking testimony from airline executives and economists.


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