Federal Judge Denies DOJ’s Request to Bar JetBlue and American Airlines’ Partnerships

In a significant legal development, a federal judge has denied the Justice Department's request to bar JetBlue Airways and American Airlines from forming partnerships like their now-scrapped Northeast Alliance. Massachusetts District Court Judge Leo Sorokin delivered his decision on Wednesday, effectively allowing the airlines to explore future alliances without immediate restrictions.

The dispute stemmed from a 2020 partnership between JetBlue and American Airlines that aimed to offer improved services for New York City-Boston flights. However, the Justice Department and six states alleged that the alliance violated federal antitrust laws, leading to a court case challenging the partnership's legality.

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Earlier in May 2023, Judge Sorokin ruled in favor of the Justice Department and the states, forcing JetBlue to dissolve the Northeast Alliance while preparing for the $3.8 billion acquisition of Spirit Airlines. Despite ending the partnership, JetBlue faced a looming antitrust complaint from the Justice Department, seeking to prevent the Spirit Airlines acquisition.

During the recent hearing, the Justice Department's attorney, William Jones, urged Judge Sorokin to prohibit JetBlue and American Airlines from forming any similar alliances with domestic carriers for two years. However, the judge disagreed, stating that such a prohibition was unnecessary to achieve the aims of antitrust relief, which must be tailored to the specific circumstances of the case.

Following the ruling, American Airlines expressed satisfaction and announced its intention to appeal the previous decision that led to the dissolution of the Northeast Alliance. The airline argued that the judge's initial ruling misapplied the law and caused the termination of an alliance that had delivered substantial and lasting benefits to consumers.

In addition to requesting the partnership restriction, the Justice Department had also advocated for the appointment of an external antitrust compliance monitor to oversee JetBlue and American Airlines' operations for five years. This monitor would have been granted full access to their staff, books, and records to ensure compliance with the court's orders. However, Judge Sorokin rejected this request, asserting that the appointment of a monitor was unnecessary.

The ruling marks a pivotal moment for the aviation industry, as it allows JetBlue and American Airlines the freedom to pursue future partnerships and alliances without immediate constraints. The court has rejected the Justice Department's request for more restrictions on the two airlines, but the Northeast Alliance will dissolve as scheduled by January.

As the airlines proceed with their individual strategies and legal battles, the broader implications of this ruling on the aviation sector's competitive landscape will undoubtedly be closely monitored. The outcome may set a precedent for how future airline alliances are evaluated under antitrust laws, shaping the dynamics of the industry for years to come.