Nor is the industry vulnerable to outsiders. Transportation disrupters such as Uber and Lime made a strategy out of flouting local regulations and asking for permission later. That’s not an option in air travel: You can’t show up at La Guardia with a jet and declare yourself open for business.
Since the arrival of ultralow-cost carriers like Spirit, innovation has come mostly in the form of pricing. By unbundling each part of the journey and then tacking on fees — for an assigned seat, for stowing your luggage, for the overhead bin, for getting a printed ticket, for early boarding — average airfares have fallen. That has helped make it possible for many more people to share in the pain of flying.
Logically, as passengers, we’d want more of what JetBlue brought to the business. Its chief executive, Robin Hayes, has promised as much, arguing that a JetBlue-Spirit combination equals more comfort and better services, value priced. “This is the anti-merger merger,” he said in a meeting with Times Opinion in March. He maintains that the combined carriers, which represent about 9 percent of the domestic market, will be able to form a more muscular network that could better take on Delta, Southwest, United and its likely soon-to-be-former partner American.
The Department of Justice is positing that a post-merger JetBlue can’t be the same innovative company it claims it will be. JetBlue can’t imagine not being that same company. But when companies scale, or start making big acquisitions, they can’t necessarily bring their cultures with them, whatever they want to believe. We once thought Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google were cool. Then they became FAANG, an acronym that connotes Big Tech.
The more prosaic view, though, is that JetBlue is buying assets to bulk up. Spirit has roughly 190 Airbus A320 family jets and, just as important, the pilots to fly them. That will allow JetBlue to grow faster than it could organically, if at a high cost. Spirit will most likely disappear in a couple of years, which a cynic might note is not necessarily a bad thing, given its on-time record.