Continental rejects United as merger partner

Posted by admin on April 28, 2008
photo by Drewski2112

Well, it was a bit of a surprise. After the linkup between Delta and Northwest a few weeks ago, many (myself included) expected to see continued industry consolidation. And a merger between United and Continental was seen as a likely one; rumors floating around pointed to an announcement as soon as this week. The merger would have created an airline that might rival Delta/Northwest in size, as well as international coverage (United’s strong Asia presence would fit nicely with Continental’s extensive European route network).

But last week, a little something occurred that made Continental think twice: United posted a $542 million loss for the first quarter of 2008. Even in the airline industry, a half billion dollar loss is pretty big, and it’s a sign of an ailing airline. United’s huge loss scared away Continental, which announced on Sunday night that it was abandoning merger talks with United.

The airline made the announcement in a letter to employees from CEO Larry Kellner and President Jeff Smisek. “We want you to know that our Board of Directors met today and has unanimously supported management’s recommendation that, in the current industry environment, the best course for Continental is to not merge with another airline at this time,” it read… The Board very carefully considered all the risks and benefits of a merger with another airline, and determined that the risks of a merger at this time outweigh the potential rewards, as compared to Continental’s prospects on a standalone basis.” The letter – which never identified United Airlines by name – went on to say that the airline will “continue to review potential alliances and our membership in SkyTeam. We are considering alternatives to SkyTeam as we carefully evaluate which major global alliance will be best for Continental over the long term.”

Continental’s decision is certainly a setback for United, which has been looking to merger for some time now. I don’t think that the decision to not merge was arrived at easily, since there could have been some benefits from linking with United. But the folks over at Continental are betting that a merger with United, which is racking up heavy losses, could also drag them down as well. Even though Continental definitely wants a better Asian route network – and they could have obtained it through a merger with United – it might be able to get it another way. If United files for bankruptcy again, Continental might be able to grab the Asian routes by themselves, without having to deal with United’s poor financial shape.

Continental has also reportedly been in talks about forming a three-way alliance with American Airlines and British Airways, although, from an anti-trust standpoint, this might be a bit difficult.

And as for United – well, this is certainly bad news. CEO Glenn Tilton tried to remain upbeat in a statement released Sunday night: “Our strategy is consistent. Consolidation is underway – ensuring you have the right partner is everything. We will pursue all options to ensure a strong, sustainable future for our airline and will not shy away from the tough choices necessary to create value for our shareholders and benefit our employees and customers.” A United-US Airways merger might happen, but I don’t know if it will do much good. Both airlines are still dealing with their respective trips to bankruptcy court, and I don’t think that a merger between them will solve anything.

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