When the U.S. Department of Transportation in early April tentatively granted antitrust immunity to Star Alliance members United Airlines, Lufthansa, Air Canada and incoming member Continental Airlines, the carriers expected a final decision by the end of May. Now, Senate Judiciary Committee members are asking DOT to postpone approval as they await the U.S. Justice Department and European Commission to finish a review of transatlantic airline competition.
In a letter sent to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood this week, Senate Judiciary Committee members Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said, "It remains our view the DOT should only grant antitrust immunity to airline alliances sparingly and only upon a determination that the immunity sought will not harm competition."
The letter notes U.S. and EC authorities have yet to complete a joint study on airline competition, requesting DOT halt final decisions until the analysis is complete. The senators did not disclose a timeline for a final report.
In addition to the tentatively approved Star Alliance application, the senators' request also addresses the pending immunity application among Oneworld members American Airlines, British Airways and Iberia-though those carriers aren't as far along in the approval process, expecting a nod from DOT in the second half of this year.
The letter asked DOT not to take action "on any antitrust immunity application, especially the United, Continental, and Lufthansa application, until the Justice Department has had a full opportunity to submit formal comments as to the competitive effects of a specific proposal," the letter states.
The letter also asks DOT "to adopt any proposed conditions recommended by the DOJ which are intended to serve the interests of competition."
DOT on April 7 tentatively approved Air Canada, Continental, Lufthansa and United to be immune from antitrust restrictions—allowing those carriers to share revenue, jointly set fares, schedules and services and negotiate with corporate clients where immunity extends. DOT's order gave interested parties 21 days to submit comments, then seven days to reply, leaving the carriers to expect a final decision by May 31 (BTNonline, April 20)
Following tentative DOT approval, EC competition authorities announced two competitive reviews of Star and Oneworld airline alliance members separately seeking antitrust immunity on transatlantic routes (BTNonline, April 20)