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JetBlue’s Daring $3.8 Billion Quest to Buy Spirit Crashes Into Regulatory Turbulence

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JetBlue Airways’ audacious attempt to significantly reshape the U.S. airline industry by acquiring the ultra-low-cost carrier Spirit Airlines has crashed into an insurmountable regulatory barrier. After a nearly two-year battle, the two carriers terminated their $3.8 billion merger agreement in the face of steadfast federal antitrust opposition.

The deal’s demise represents a stinging setback for JetBlue, which had contested the U.S. Justice Department in federal court over whether buying Spirit would reduce competition and raise fares. A federal judge ultimately blocked the transaction, siding with the Biden administration’s view that it would “harm cost-conscious travelers who rely on Spirit’s low fares.”

While JetBlue initially appealed the ruling as required by the merger terms, both airlines acknowledged the increasingly slim odds of reviving the deal. With the Justice Department firmly opposed and the regulatory obstacles too high, new JetBlue CEO Joanna Geraghty conceded “the probability of getting the green light anytime soon is extremely low.”

Geraghty, tasked with righting JetBlue’s operational struggles, defended the rationale as an bold plan to “shake up the industry status quo.” However, the regulatory headwinds proved too intense to complete what would have been the airline sector’s most transformative merger since 2013.

The termination marks an abrupt reversal from just months ago when JetBlue convinced Spirit shareholders to reject a lower buyout bid from Frontier Airlines. Spirit was positioned to receive a $2.9 billion cash payout before the deal disintegrated in court.

Instead, Spirit will get a relatively modest $69 million breakup fee from the termination, though its shareholders had already pocketed $425 million in prepayments from JetBlue.

Walking away leaves each airline to fend for itself in a market dominated by the “Big Four” carriers controlling over 80% of seat capacity. The stakes are elevated for the oft-struggling Spirit, grappling with operational issues like an engine defect that will ground dozens of jets for inspections.

With JetBlue’s acquisition off the table, Spirit must fortify its shaky balance sheet and consistently turn a profit as a standalone ultra-low-cost carrier (ULCC). CEO Ted Christie affirmed initiatives underway to “bolster profitability and elevate the guest experience.” Spirit expects better-than-expected Q1 revenue amid robust demand, and is refinancing debt.

However, funding constraints and cost pressures cloud Spirit’s outlook. Aviation experts caution the ULCC model faces an uphill climb in an inflationary environment squeezing margins. Without JetBlue’s resources, Spirit’s growth ambitions may stall as rivals build scale.

For JetBlue, the road is also turbulent as it contends with operations struggles, financial headwinds and pressure from activists. The Spirit deal was viewed as a potential catalyst accelerant for overhauling its business model. Without that lever, JetBlue may be forced to double down on existing lines or revisit other acquisition targets.

The regulatory blockade has raised the bar for any future industry consolidation. The Biden administration signaled it will vehemently contest any merger resembling a reduction of competition. Airlines contemplating deals should anticipate similar anti-trust scrutiny.

In the near-term, blocking the JetBlue-Spirit tie-up preserves ultra-low fare offerings in markets they serve. But whether those discounted seats endure remains uncertain as unconventional airlines face economic pressures.

What was envisioned as a game-changing shift in industry power dynamics has stalled indefinitely. The two airlines must now chart separate paths forward – for better or for worse.

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