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Warren Says Southwest Airline Failures Show Need for Stronger Antitrust Law

Airline mergers have been a “disaster” for customers, Warren said.

Travelers search for their luggage at the Southwest Airlines Baggage Claim at Midway Airport on December 27, 2022, in Chicago, Illinois.

As Southwest Airlines undergoes a crisis, having canceled thousands of flights over the past few days, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) is saying that lax antitrust enforcement over the past decades is partially to blame for the problem.

On Tuesday, Warren said on Twitter that airline mergers have been a “disaster” for consumers and called for regulators to focus on increasing competition in the industry.

“Consolidation in the airline industry has been a disaster for Americans left with fewer choices and higher prices. [Southwest]’s cancellations are the latest example,” she wrote. “[The Department of Transportation] should use its antitrust tools to protect fliers, starting with blocking the [JetBlue-Spirit Airlines] merger.”

Over the course of Monday and Tuesday, Southwest canceled over 5,000 flights, including 60 percent of its scheduled flights for Tuesday and Wednesday. Though all airlines have struggled with the cold temperatures that swept the U.S. this weekend, the Southwest cancellations make up a majority of all flight cancellations over the past few days.

Southwest workers say that poor management and refusal to update systems is to blame, and that the company has treated its workers poorly through the cancellations. “The way Southwest Airlines has treated its flight crews can only be termed ‘despicable,’” said Lyn Montgomery, TWU Local 556, per CBS.

“We know the demands of holiday travel. We know winter storms. And believe me, we know about stepping up and putting in long work hours when we are called to do so; we are flight attendants,” Montgomery continued. “But at this point, the many years of failure by management, despite many unions’ demands to modernize, has left flight attendants fatigued, stranded, hungry and cold — on Christmas!”

Many consumers had little choice but to book Southwest for their holiday travel; American Airlines, Delta, United and Southwest make up 80 percent of passenger air traffic in the States, thanks to mergers over the past decades that have left four major airline companies remaining.

Historically, such mergers have meant worse outcomes for passengers, with airlines more likely to lose baggage as they undergo a merger. A proposed merger between Spirit and JetBlue could mean even less competition in the airline industry. If federal regulators allow the $7.6 billion deal that was proposed earlier this year to go through, it would create the fifth-largest airline in the U.S.

This could lead to increased prices for customers, experts say, as Spirit’s typically low prices — to compensate for a worsened flying experience — would go up as a result of the deal. And yet, even as airlines jacked up prices this year far higher than inflation rates and as airlines have carried out mass cancellations and shorted customers of refunds, federal regulators have done little to rein in the industry to protect travelers.

Warren has previously urged the Department of Transportation to block the Spirit-JetBlue deal. In a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in September, Warren said that the agency should block the deal in the public interest, pointing out that the elimination of a low-cost carrier like Spirit could cause prices to further rise across the board.

“Today, the four largest airlines — American, Southwest, Delta, and United — control 80 percent of the domestic market, more than at any point in the modern history of commercial aviation,” she wrote. “This dominance has been achieved not primarily by offering better, more reliable service to passengers at lower fares but instead through a series of airline mega-mergers that have reduced service quality and increased fares.”