No, we can't allow this
The Frontier-Spirit merger is just the first of many post-pandemic tragedies we don't deserve
The proposed merger between Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines sounded like the punchline to a bad joke when I heard about it. The two worst airlines in America are headed to the altar. Talk about a marriage made in hell!
You've gotta be kidding.
But no. This corporate union is for real, and executives have promised consumers will save "billions" if the government approves it.
Of course, the merger is an awful idea and the government should not allow it under any circumstances. (Here's our freewheeling discussion from the Friday Forum. Most of you agreed.) But this is part of a bigger trend that you need to know about. You should expect more travel companies, including airlines, to try some funny business after the pandemic. Details in a minute.
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Let's talk about Frontier and Spirit
I predicted an airline merger in 2022, and we got one just a few weeks later. I hate it when I'm right about this kind of thing.
Seriously, these airlines have the worst customer service records. Period. They prey on the most budget-conscious travelers, dangling low fares and then adding fees for everything from carry-on luggage to seat assignments. Oh sure, they clearly disclose their fees, but since their target customers don’t read the fine print, the discount airlines know they’ve already won. Their customers won't do the basic math and will end up paying more than if they'd flown on a legacy carrier.
Consumer deception is the business model for Frontier and Spirit, no question about it. So part of me says, yeah, let 'em merge. That way we only have to avoid one airline. Why not take Allegiant while you're at it?
But another part of me says no. Less competition is bad for consumers. Who knows, at some point, one of these so-called "ultra" low-cost carriers might realize that hoodwinking passengers is terrible for business. Wouldn't that be something if it started to include a checked bag in the cost of all of its tickets? Or if they started treating customers like people instead of cargo?
One comment in the Friday Forum urged the federal government to stay out of this merger and let it go through. Let the market decide. As an expatriate, I've recently found new ways of appreciating a lightly regulated market, so I’m sympathetic to that line of reasoning.
But now that I’ve thought of it, stopping this merger is the only acceptable course. The reason: The federal government has already done a great disservice by propping up unsustainable airlines during COVID, as well as during the Great Recession and after 9/11. It has approved anticompetitive alliances and granted landing slots to undeserving airlines. It's doled out tax breaks we commoners can only dream of.
Stopping a preposterous merger like Frontier-Spirit would go a long way to undoing some of that damage. But how?
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Mergers are bad. End of discussion.
I'm surprised by some of the people coming out in favor of the Frontier-Spirit merger. OAG Senior Analyst John Grant sent me an email claiming the merger will translate into lower prices and won't reduce consumer choices.
"Mergers like this one are typically great wins for consumers, who can expect added capacity, increased continuity of service and lower fares," he noted. "Both airlines will gain a better position in the market, and an impact on consumer choice isn’t likely."
I'm not so convinced. I've seen so many airline mergers, including the absolutely catastrophic American Airlines-US Airways combination, and I can tell you that airline mergers are always good for the shareholders and bad for passengers. Always.
You can't make an argument that having fewer competitors, reduced flights, and higher prices is in any way beneficial to passengers unless you twist logic itself. Airline apologists will say that merging two airlines creates one stronger airline, and that what's good for the airline is good for consumers.
But isn't that a stretch? Who's to say two competing airlines wouldn't be able to better serve passengers? (And, for that matter, employees. I mean, check with the employee unions of US Airways or TWA to find out how their mergers worked out for them. I'll wait right here.)
No, what we've been hearing this week is airlines and their apologists feeding us propaganda — and hoping that we don't remember what happened the last time two airlines merged.
The only way to fix this is for the federal government to do its job now. The Department of Justice should quickly investigate this proposed merger and conclude that it isn’t in our best interests to lose a competitor and gain yet another too-big-to-fail airline that exploits customers.
After billions in pandemic bailouts, which were parceled out as carelessly as bags of rice tossed off the back of an Ethiopian food aid convoy, it’s time for the government to stand up for its own people, don’t you think?
Welcome to the future?
Here's what worries me: I suspect more post-pandemic mergers are on the horizon, and not just the airline industry. And remember, mergers are always bad for consumers, no matter how you try to spin them. Something tells me other companies are preparing to do the same. They'll leverage public sympathy and the "hard times" created by COVID to push through more anticompetitive mergers.
Who's next? It could be anyone. Two large hotel chains, maybe. Someone will probably buy Crystal Cruises' assets if there's a bankruptcy liquidation, and that's one less competitor. And why doesn't Hertz just buy Avis? These combinations are all possible now, as the travel industry emerges from the pandemic. And they are likely to sail through because these industries spend more on lobbyists than they do on customer service.
But enough is enough. Yes, Frontier and Spirit are a joke. What comes next is about as serious as it gets.
Your thoughts, please
Who’s going to merge next and how will it affect customer service? During normal times, mergers are tightly regulated by the government. But in the upcoming post-pandemic phase, it’s possible that the DOJ will look the other way. What do you think is going to happen — and what should we do to stop it? The comments are open.
About the art
Somewhere in all of our lives, we have unfortunately witnessed toxic couples from hell, says artist Dustin Elliott. "I was keeping this in mind as I was working on this masterpiece," he says. "I dare not even think about the poor child that results from this union."