DALLAS — American Airlines and US Airways reached a deal with the government that lets the two form the world’s biggest airline and opens up more room at key U.S. airports for low-cost carriers.
The settlement announced Tuesday — if approved by a federal judge — would end a fight with the U.S. Justice Department and head off a courtroom showdown later this month.
It preserves hub airports in Phoenix, Philadelphia, Charlotte and four other cities for at least three years. And it caps a series of mergers that have already eliminated four big U.S. airlines and stoked fear about higher travel prices.
For American, the nation’s third-biggest airline, the deal lets parent AMR Corp. exit bankruptcy protection, repay creditors and reward shareholders.
At US Airways, the No. 5 U.S. carrier, shareholders will own 28 percent of the new company, employees stand to get more pay, and top executives will realize their dreams of running an airline even bigger than United or Delta.
The Justice Department said it extracted the largest divestitures ever in an airline merger. Attorney General Eric Holder said the agreement would ensure more competition on nonstop and connecting routes throughout the country.
For American and US Airways customers, they’ll get reciprocal frequent-flier benefits in January and, executives said, more service to more places eventually. Doug Parker, the US Airways CEO who will run the new airline, even suggested that customer service will improve because workers will share in a more prosperous industry.
William Baer, assistant attorney general for Justice’s antitrust division, said that even a few more gates and flights for low-fare carriers would help consumers. He said that when Southwest picked up slots at Newark, N.J., as part of the 2010 merger of United and Continental, it had a ripple effect that reduced fares on many routes.
The airlines were close to finishing the merger in August until the Justice Department and several states filed an antitrust lawsuit to block the deal, saying it would reduce competition on hundreds of routes around the country and lead to higher consumer prices. A trial was scheduled to begin Nov. 25.
To avoid the uncertainty of a trial, American and US Airways agreed to give up about 15 percent of their takeoff and landing rights at Reagan National Airport near Washington and a smaller number of slots at LaGuardia Airport in New York.
They also agreed to give up two gates each at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, Los Angeles International, Boston’s Logan Airport, Dallas Love Field and Miami. And they promised to maintain flights to cities in six states that sided with the Justice Department.
The settlement still needs the approval of a federal judge in Washington, but that is expected to be a formality, and the companies expect to close their deal in the first half of December.
The new company will be called American Airlines Group Inc., replacing AMR, which will emerge from bankruptcy simultaneously with the merger closing. It will be slightly larger than United and Delta by passenger traffic and have about 100,000 employees and 6,700 daily flights to more than 300 destinations. It will be based at AMR’s home in Fort Worth, Texas.
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