On the peak holiday travel weekend the Justice Department announced that it was launching an antitrust investigation into the airline industry. The four largest airlines in the U.S. now have 80 percent of the market. Three of those airlines were involved in mergers, all of which were approved by the Justice Department! The feds seem concerned that whenever an airline exec says the word "discipline" at an industry conference, it is secret code for "price fixing" or "capacity limiting."
A recent WSJ piece looked carefully at recent trends in air travel capacity. It turns out that there are 12% more domestic seats for sale now than two years ago, hardly what you would expect for an industry with high fixed costs and (now with lower fuel prices) more modest variable costs. Airlines are cutting back on flights but adding more seats to each flight by (1) reducing space between seats and making the seats smaller and (2) replacing small regional jets with larger aircraft.
If the feds are seriously searching for a factor limiting capacity in the industry, they might want to take a look at airports. When was the last time a new airport was built in a major city? When was the last time a new runway was added or more gates were added in the average city? If local governments fail to invest in airport capacity, it will be hard for the airlines to put enough seats in place to meet demand.
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