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The prospective union of United and Continental airlines could run into turbulence in the coming weeks as Congress prepares to hold hearings on the proposed mega-marriage, which already has plenty of critics on Capitol Hill.
With the merger approval in the hands of the antitrust division of the Justice Department, Congress is relegated largely to an oversight and advisory role.
Nevertheless, experts in such deals say that the airlines want to ensure that the hearings do not turn into a public relations nightmare that could indirectly factor into the Justice Department decision.
They add that while Justice officials are supposed to focus on economic and not political considerations, it would be hard to ignore widespread disapproval on Capitol Hill or negative headlines generated by confrontational hearings.
Its worth it to them to damp down the opposition expressed at the hearings, said Michael Goldman, an expert in transportation law and a partner at the firm of Silverberg Goldman & Bikoff. He said the airlines should be lobbying to ensure that the witness lists at the hearings include experts who support the merger and are not dominated by consumer and labor groups in opposition.
The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights has scheduled a hearing called The United/Continental Airlines Merger: How Will Consumers Fare? for May 27. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation has already announced it will hold a hearing June 16 on the possible effects of the merger on consumers and the industry.
While the merger has been overshadowed by other events such as the BP oil spill, it has sparked criticism from some key players, notably Rep. James Oberstar, chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
In a May 5 letter to Christine Varney, assistant attorney general for the antitrust division, the Minnesota Democrat wrote that the increasing consolidation of airlines will result in less service and rising fares.
Some Texas lawmakers have expressed concerns that the merger will result in the loss of corporate jobs in the Lone Star State. Under the tentative agreement, the headquarters of the merged airline would be in Chicago, where United is based, and not Houston, Continentals home.
The proposed merger with United raises understandable concerns about the impact on the Houston area economy as well as broader issues with competition and choice, Senate Commerce ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison said in a statement. The Texas Republican said she will review the short- and long-term effects of the merger.
The combined airline has drawn mixed reviews from labor unions. The union representing United pilots has praised the deal, arguing that because the two airlines have minimal route overlap, that would mean more job security.
But officials with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents 26,000 employees at both airlines, including flight attendants and baggage handlers, fear the merger could lead to job losses.
Robert Roach Jr., the unions vice president of transportation, said labor officials have been making the rounds on Capitol Hill expressing their concerns. He said union leaders are also scheduled to meet with airline executives in Washington, D.C., today to get a better grasp about what the merger would mean.
There has been a lack of information forthcoming, he said.