The ruling is a blow to JetBlue, which been trying to expand rapidly in recent years. In addition to the alliance with American, JetBlue has entered a deal to buy Spirit Airlines. The Justice Department is asking a judge to block that acquisition as well.
JetBlue is the sixth-largest airline in the United States, with a 5.5 percent share of the domestic market, according to federal data. American is the largest, with 17.6 percent.
In the lawsuit over the Northeast Alliance, the Justice Department argued that JetBlue had been a disruptive presence in the industry, forcing larger, more established airlines to lower prices. JetBlue’s deal with American effectively removed a formidable competitor from several important markets, the department argued.
More than 75 percent of all JetBlue flights last year flew to or from the four airports covered by the agreement, according to flight schedules tracked by Cirium, an aviation data firm.
“Though the defendants claim their bigger-is-better collaboration will benefit the flying public, they produced minimal objectively credible proof to support that claim,” Judge Sorokin wrote. “Whatever the benefits to American and JetBlue of becoming more powerful — in the Northeast generally or in their shared rivalry with Delta — such benefits arise from a naked agreement not to compete with one another.”
The airlines’ share prices fell roughly 1.5 percent on Friday, but there appeared to be little additional selling pressure in aftermarket trading following the afternoon legal ruling.
American and JetBlue have recorded strong gains in market value this year, but both still have a long way to go before they recover from the pandemic’s devastating impact on airline travel: American has lost about half its market value compared with the start of 2020, while JetBlue’s stock has fallen more than 60 percent since then.
In the lawsuit seeking to prevent JetBlue’s takeover of Spirit, antitrust regulators have argued that JetBlue’s pursuit of the Northeast Alliance is evidence that the airline is increasingly acting like a larger, more established carrier. Spirit is even more disruptive to other airlines today than JetBlue, which “has fewer reasons to continue to compete aggressively” with the nation’s largest airlines, the department said. That case is expected to go to trial this year unless it is settled first.