Continental misses antitrust immunity

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It is only SkyTeam member Continental Airlines that is the odd man out.

The Houston-based carrier is not part of the joint venture agreement approved by the US authorities that gives transatlantic antitrust immunity to SkyTeam partners Air France-KLM, Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines - plus Alitalia and CSA Czech Airlines. The approval is the first such antitrust application that the US Department of Transportation has approved since European Union-USA Open Skies became a reality in late March.

Even though Continental's Newark Liberty hub just outside New York City remains an attractive one, Continental's ­operation is threatened by ­comparison with the New York JFK operation of Delta and Northwest.

It "could be at a disadvantage to the four-way SkyTeam joint venture's formidable hub complex of Amsterdam, Paris, JFK, Atlanta and Detroit", according to Merrill Lynch airline securities analyst Michael Linenberg.

Linenberg points out that the granting of antitrust immunity to SkyTeam could help oneworld partners American Airlines and British Airways, who have tried twice to get antitrust immunity for their own alliance. "The transatlantic market share of the four-way joint venture, plus Alitalia and Czech, would be well ahead of the share of the immunised Star Alliance. And British ­Airways' and American's share pales in comparison," he says.

American Airlines chief ­executive Gerard Arpey says: "We didn't get into Heathrow by a gift. We bought our way into Heathrow and what you've seen is our competitors have found a way to access the Heathrow market, so we think that letting that play out, letting the regulators see that there has been access, is going to be helpful to our case."

He adds: "Speaking from an American perspective, I think there will be an appropriate time to cross that bridge."

As Linenberg puts it: "The ­divestiture by American Airlines/British Airways of valuable London Heathrow slots as a 'price' for antitrust immunity seems less likely as US carriers have amply demonstrated their ability to ­procure Heathrow slots, albeit at a high price."