Airline consolidation

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It’s a dogfight. Doug Parker of US Airways remains on the tail of bankrupt rival Delta, with its new supercharged offer. Delta’s Jerry Grinstein is trying to dodge him with a plan to go it alone.

Mr Parker on Wednesday upped his bid by 20 per cent to $10.2bn, almost half in cash. He hopes to force Delta’s creditors into action. US Airways’ credible-looking numbers for a combination leave Mr Grinstein’s solo plan looking short on value. But, with airlines, financial logic doesn’t always win the day. There are the usual public relations, antitrust and integration risks. Jobs would be lost, given overlapping operations. Some customers would protest. And airline mergers are tricky to pull off.

To complicate matters further, Mr Grinstein and his colleagues are heavily invested in piloting Delta out of bankruptcy and stand to gain financially if they are successful. Among others with different agendas, the official creditors’ committee includes Boeing – which presumably does not want an Airbus customer buying Delta. That said, investors welcomed Mr Parker’s original offer in November and pushed Delta’s bonds higher still on Wednesday. This suggests there is a good chance creditors could push Delta into talks with US Airways instead of bowing to its stand-alone plan.

US Airways is hoping to force the issue by setting a February 1 deadline. It wants creditors to postpone a court hearing scheduled for the next week on Delta management’s plan. Otherwise, a clear financial case could get smothered by airline industry sensitivities and the complexities of bankruptcy.

But if US Airways succeeds, others could swoop in. For example, the networks of United or Northwest, itself in bankruptcy, overlap less with Delta’s, which could make a merger easier to sell. Either way, it is time for more airline consolidation.

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