August 14, 2013 10:24:47 AM
NEW YORK -- The government is putting its foot down on rising airfares and fees by blocking the latest airline merger -- but for fliers, it's already too late.
The past decade has seen the largest transformation of the airline industry in a generation. Prior to 2005, there were nine major U.S. airlines. Today, just five.
The merger of American Airlines and US Airways would bring that number down to four. But Tuesday, the Department of Justice moved to block the deal, saying it would cost consumers hundreds of millions of dollars a year in higher fares and extra fees.
But even before this, the cost of flying had gone up for consumers as the industry consolidated. The average cost of a roundtrip domestic ticket -- including baggage and reservation change fees -- grew to $378.62 last year, up from $351.48 in 2008, when adjusted for inflation.
The American-US Airways merger would create the world's biggest airline and help propel American out of bankruptcy court protection. For smaller US Airways, the deal represents a chance to be a significant player in global aviation and to better compete with the larger airlines that now dominate the market.
The latest round of consolidation started in 2005, when America West bought US Airways out of bankruptcy, taking its name. Then Delta and Northwest merged in 2008, followed by United and Continental, and Southwest and AirTran. All of those easily won the blessing of antitrust regulators -- the first two under President George W. Bush, the second pair under President Barack Obama.
Andy Brennan, an analyst with IBISWorld, said the government approved those deals to save the then-struggling industry. Now that the airlines' health has improved, regulators are more concerned about airfares.
"While there's still a bit of turmoil and volatility in the economy, it's much more stable than it was only a few years ago," Brennan said.
The number of players in the European industry has shrunk as well, with the mergers of Air France and KLM, British Airways and Iberia, and Lufthansa with Swiss and Austrian.
Consolidation has made the airlines more stable, provided job security for thousands of employees and rewarded Wall Street investors. Business travelers have benefited from more flight options and easier connections. But families looking to go on vacation face higher fares and fewer airlines to choose from.