Shares of low-cost carrier Spirit Airlines plunged a staggering 47% on Tuesday after a federal judge ruled to block the proposed $3.8 billion acquisition by JetBlue Airways. The decision reignited antitrust concerns surrounding consolidation in the airline industry and delivered a major setback to the merger partners.
Judge Leo Sorokin of the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts sided with the Justice Department, which sued earlier this year to halt the deal between the two discount airlines. Regulators argued the merger would lead to higher fares, fewer choices, and reduced competition – particularly impacting budget-conscious leisure travelers.
In his ruling, Sorokin agreed the combination of JetBlue and Spirit would substantially reduce competition in major metropolitan areas and lead to dominant market power on hundreds of routes. Evidence also suggested the merger was likely to raise base fares above pre-merger levels, contradicting the airlines’ claims that the deal would actually lower costs for consumers.
The Justice Department applauded the decision, stating it protected the interests of millions of air travelers against the threat of increased prices and reduced options. The Biden administration has taken a tougher stance on antitrust issues across industries like tech and healthcare. Blocking this airline deal marked the first time in over 20 years regulators successfully halted a major U.S. carrier merger.
JetBlue and Spirit responded with disappointment, saying they disagree with the judge’s rationale and are evaluating their legal options. Previously, the carriers contended combining forces would fuel competition with larger legacy airlines and drive down airfares. But regulators argued JetBlue’s Northeast Alliance with American Airlines already gave the company substantial market power.
For Spirit, the failed acquisition is a crushing blow after months in limbo. The ultra-low cost airline initially agreed to merge with fellow discounter Frontier Airlines before JetBlue stepped in with a higher bid. Now, Spirit finds itself alone again after the about-face regulators delivered.
The collapsed deal and renewed antitrust scrutiny sent Spirit’s stock price into a nosedive. Shares cratered from Friday’s close of $19.66 to around $10.40 on Tuesday after the ruling. The 47% single-day wipeout vaporized over $1.4 billion in market value. Investors are surely questioning what’s next for the budget carrier without an imminent buyer or partner.
The blocked merger also casts uncertainty over ongoing consolidation in the travel and tourism sector. Many investors had bet on further airline combinations to drive efficiency and shareholder returns. With regulators now throwing up roadblocks, the appetite for large-scale airline deals could diminish. That may leave some carriers struggling to gain scale and keep pace with leading players like Delta and American.
Broader travel stocks also felt the tremor of the scuttled Spirit-JetBlue tie-up. Shares of Hawaiian Holdings, involved in a proposed merger with Alaska Air, fell nearly 2% Tuesday afternoon amid the uncertain regulatory environment. Cruise operators like Norwegian and Royal Caribbean slid as much as 5%, potentially signaling dampened outlooks for leisure sector combinations.
Potentially compounding Spirit’s challenges, competitor Frontier Airlines could come back to the table with a renewed merger proposal now that JetBlue is sidelined. Spirit already expended time and resources negotiating with Frontier last year. More uncertainty around consolidation could further destabilize the airline at a precarious moment.
Looking ahead, Spirit and JetBlue still have avenues to continue the legal fight. They could appeal the decision or take their arguments directly to regulators for another look. But after the Justice Department’s strong stance earlier in the case, the odds of overturning the ruling remain long.
For now, the blocked acquisition marks a setback in the wave of consolidation that has swept the U.S. airline industry over the past two decades. Major carriers will be wary of attempting large mergers and risking similar antitrust opposition. While the Biden administration succeeded in halting this particular deal, ongoing fragmentation may not solve the lack of competition in air travel markets across America.