TIME mergers

Charter Promises To Play by the Government’s Internet Rules

Charter Communications Buys Time Warner Cable In $79 Billion Deal
Yvonne Hemsey—Getty Images Charter Communications's office in Newtown, Connecticut is seen May 30, 2015.

If it's allowed to merge with Time Warner Cable

Charter is ready to go above and beyond the government’s requirements for maintaining a free and open Internet, as long as it gets to merge with Time Warner Cable. The cable and Internet giant submitted a statement to the Federal Communications Commission Thursday explaining why the proposed merger between the two companies, along with Bright House Networks, is in the public interest.

If the merger is approved, Charter said that it would not block or throttle certain types of Internet traffic or prioritize certain content in paid “fast lanes.” These are central tenets of net neutrality rules which the FCC recently reenacted, but Charter is agreeing to adhere to these standards even if the new regulations are later ruled illegal (it’s happened before).

Charter also said it would submit disputes over interconnection agreements to the FCC. Interconnection is how ISPs like Charter transfer traffic from content services such as Netflix into people’s homes. The agreements have come under increased public scrutiny over the last year due to drawn-out debates between Netflix and Internet companies like Comcast and Verizon.

Even with these promises, there’s no guarantee that the FCC will approve the merger, which would give Charter about 19 million broadband customers and 17 million TV customers. Comcast dropped a bid to acquire Time Warner Cable earlier this year after it became clear that the FCC was unlikely to approve the deal.

TIME mergers & acquisitions

Here’s Why Merger Approvals Are Getting So Slow

It's not just your imagination

As the number of mergers and acquisitions has rapidly increased in the past few years since the 2007-08 financial crisis, government watchdog agencies have been slower at approving them, The Wall Street Journal reports.

The Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission are using more time to investigate mergers, the newspaper reported, citing data from antitrust lawyer Paul Denis of Dechert LLP. Denis’ data show recent merger reviews are taking 10 months on average versus seven months in previous years.

The Journal noted a few reasons why recent mergers have been held in regulatory limbo:

External factors explain the length of some antitrust probes. Telecom mergers, such as the Comcast and AT&T deals, require an added layer of FCC review. And deals with a strong international component can take longer as firms coordinate with antitrust agencies overseas.

Some atypically long processes could be affecting Denis’ data. Comcast waited 14 months to hear about its bid for Time Warner Cable before ultimately dropping the plan in the face of regulatory pressure. Meanwhile, a review of AT&T’s attempt to acquire DirecTV has been in the works for more than a year.

TIME mergers

Here’s One Big Reason T-Mobile Should Merge With Dish

Dish has been hoarding something very valuable

Satellite TV provider Dish Network is in talks to merge with wireless carrier T-Mobile, the Wall Street Journal reported late Wednesday evening, a move that would mark the latest in a series of successful and attempted deals consolidating the telecom industry.

T-Mobile—and its customers (and investors and lawyers)—has much to gain from combining with Dish. Despite years of edgy advertising and disruptive offerings flown under the marketing banner of “The Uncarrier,” T-Mobile remains stuck in fourth place behind its wireless rivals in terms of subscribers. T-Mobile’s outspoken CEO, John Legere, has long sought to make a big move to help his company compete with his industry’s twin titans, Verizon and AT&T, most recently by moving toward a merger with rival Sprint. That deal was ultimately called off under pressure from regulators.

What Dish offers T-Mobile is a finite resource valuable for big telecoms: Wireless spectrum, a government-regulated resource that carriers need to be able to offer service. Dish was markedly aggressive in snatching up such spectrum during recent government auctions, and now has about $60 billion worth of it. Until now, it hasn’t been clear what Dish was up to—it doesn’t run its own wireless network, so the spectrum was only beneficial to Dish as something valuable to hoard.

But if Dish and T-Mobile merge, T-Mobile would be able to tap into that spectrum, adding more and faster service across the country. That, combined with the continuation of its industry-unsettling “Uncarrer” strategy, could turn T-Mobile into a real threat for Verizon and AT&T for the first time. And because the deal wouldn’t reduce the number of major mobile carriers in the U.S., regulators are more likely to let this merger happen.

What’s in it for Dish? It would finally get to use that $60 billion in spectrum without the costly expensive of building its own wireless network — and start selling broadband data packages, too, moving into a lucrative new market.

TIME mergers

Everything You Need to Know About Merger Mastermind John Malone

The deal-maker had a hand in creating the cable industry itself, now he's at it again

Once known as the King of Cable, John Malone helped introduce pay-TV to the masses in the ’70s and ’80s. Now the media mogul, who serves as the chairman of the conglomerate Liberty Media, is helping orchestrate a merger between Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications. (Liberty Media owns the largest stake in Charter.) If approved by regulators, the combined cable and broadband giant would serve almost 24 million total customers, making it nearly as large as industry leader Comcast, which has 27 million subscribers. Here’s everything you need to know about Malone.

Claims to Fame: After an early stint as a researcher at Bell Labs, a 32-year-old Malone became the CEO of a struggling cable operator called Tele-Communications Inc, or TCI, in 1973. By the 1980s TCI was the largest pay-TV operator in the United States, wiring millions of Americans’ homes for cable for the first time. He sold the company to AT&T for $55 billion in 1999, then turned his attention to his role as chairman of Liberty Media, where his investments have ranged from Charter to Sirius XM to the Atlanta Braves.

Current Challenges: The cable industry Malone helped build is losing subscribers because of online competitors such as Netflix and Hulu, which let customers stream their favorite television shows whenever they want on any device. Costs are also on the rise as networks charge ever-increasing fees to carry their content—ESPN alone now charges cable companies more than $6 per subscriber.

Biggest Champion: Charter and Time Warner Cable CEOs Tom Rutledge and Rob Marcus. Rutledge, who has been a vocal proponent of consolidation as a way to protect the cable industry’s future, would remain the head of the newly expanded Charter. Marcus, who has been trying to sell Time Warner Cable since he took on the top role at the company last year, could receive more than $61 million in severance pay.

Biggest Obstacle: The Federal Communications Commission, which forced Comcast to scuttle its own plans for a merger with Time Warner Cable in April. Regulators worried that the expanded Comcast would have too much control of the broadband Internet market.

Can He Do It? Malone’s merger has a better shot than Comcast’s because a combined Charter and Time Warner Cable still wouldn’t control a majority of the broadband market. And Malone is as skilled in the dark art tax-saving acquisitions and spinoffs as they come—in addition to being anointed the king, some have called him the Darth Vader of cable.

Vital Stats

74: Malone’s Age

$55 Billion: Money in cash and stock Charter will pay to buy Time Warner Cable

$8.6 billion: Malone’s net worth, according to Forbes

2.2 million acres: Amount of land Malone owns, making him the largest landowner in the U.S. (For more on Malone’s holdings, check out this Fortune story.)

TIME mergers

Why the Latest Cable Merger Won’t Fail Like Comcast

The Charter deal would not be on the scale of the proposed Comcast-TWC merger

Is Charter Communications Inc bold or foolish? The cable company announced it will acquire rival Time Warner Cable Inc – even though Comcast’s attempt to pull off the same deal foundered just weeks ago on anticompetitive concerns.

Comcast, recall, struck out after spending 14 months and $336 million on legal and lobbying bills. The price of failure for Charter would be even steeper: It has agreed to pay Time Warner Cable a $2 billion break-up fee in the event the deal doesn’t go through. But, for now at least, merger fans have little to worry about.

Even though the deal, which also involves Charter swallowing another small operator called Bright House Networks, would create a broadband behemoth, it would not be on the scale of the proposed Comcast-TWC merger. (The latter deal would have given Comcast exclusive control of over half the high-speed broadband connections in the country; the figure in the Charter deal will be closer to one quarter).

That scale difference alone is likely to quell anticompetitive concerns. While FCC Chair Tom Wheeler is already making noise about the need for the deal to “benefit” consumers, this likely means the agency will try to extract a few promises from Charter rather than erecting full-blown roadblocks.

Also aiding Charter is that, unlike Comcast, it doesn’t own content verticals like NBC. In the view of regulators, this reduces the chances of major mischief in the form of the merged company favoring some type of broadband content over others.

One more good sign for Charter is that public interest groups, which promptly threw a fit after Comcast announced its merger plans in early 2014, are so far keeping their powder dry. The president of Public Knowledge, for instance, said that his group is still assessing the implications.

“No, we have to review all details,” said Gene Kimmelman in response to an email asking if his group plans to oppose the merger. “And it must be shown to benefit the public in the FCC review, which is certainly not clear at this point in time. We may oppose unless certain public interest protections are put in place.”

Finally, Charter’s chances are improved by the simple fact that it is not named Comcast. As Fortune editor Alan Murray recently explained, Comcast’s rotten customer service helped it achieve a singular infamy, even by the low standards of America’s little-loved cable companies. This ensured that consumers and regulators alike were determined to stop Comcast from growing bigger.

All this is why the Charter deal, while no slam-dunk, is likely to go through with relatively few hitches.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com.

TIME mergers

Meet the Man Who Brought AOL Back From the Dead

AOL Inc. Chief Executive Officer Timothy Armstrong Interview
Bloomberg via Getty Images Timothy "Tim" Armstrong, chairman and chief executive officer of AOL Inc., listens to a question during a Bloomberg Television in New York, U.S., on Friday, June 27, 2014.

Tim Armstrong's work led to the $4.4 billion Verizon deal

When Tim Armstrong took over America Online in 2009, Wired wondered whether he had lost his mind. Armstrong was a top ad executive at Google, a still-ascendant Internet giant. America Online wasn’t even America Online anymore. It had been officially redubbed AOL in 2006, and was indeed a shrunken version of its former self. The once-hot consumer tech company was preparing to be spun off from parent company Time Warner in a rebuke of the mega-merger between the two firms in 2000.

(Time Warner merged with AOL in 2000. Time Warner spun off AOL in 2009. Time Warner spun off Time Inc. in 2014)

AOL’s ride has been bumpy since 2009, complete with constant acquisition rumors, public firings of executives and a perplexingly consistent dial-up Internet business. But by refocusing the company’s efforts on new opportunities such as programmatic ad buying and online video, Armstrong has helped the company escape the aged branding of its old free Internet CDs. There’s now a future in AOL–at least that’s the belief held by Verizon, which announced Tuesday that it will buy the company for $4.4 billion in cash, a 23% premium on the company’s share price over the last three months. Armstrong is likely to thank for that.

Armstrong, 44, began his career with stints at Disney and Snowball.com, a youth-focused Web portal that ascended during the dot-com bubble. He joined Google in 2000 to help the fledgling Internet company develop better relationships with advertisers. Armstrong opened Google’s New York “office” at a Starbucks in Manhattan’s Upper West side in 2000. He eventually became the president of Google’s Americas Operations, with one of his primary tasks being to lure lucrative brand advertisers from Madison Avenue onto Google’s myriad ad products. When Armstrong departed the search giant for AOL, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt called him “one of the most creative, fun and respected leaders in the ad industry.”

At AOL, Armstrong has worked to transform the company into an ad tech and media platform. AOL bought The Huffington Post for $315 million in 2011, and it has also snapped up smaller publishing outlets such as TechCrunch and Engadget. The company has been investing heavily in ad tech, with its AOL Platforms network helping publishers place ad units across the Web. Today, less than a quarter of AOL’s revenue comes from its Internet subscriptions, compared to more than 40% in 2010. In 2013, the company posted its first year-on-year revenue gain in eight years, and closed out 2014 with $126 million in profit, a 36% increase over the previous year.

But Armstrong has also been at the helm for some misfires. While still at Google, he co-founded Patch, a news website focused on hyperlocal reporting in communities around the United States. AOL bought Patch after Armstrong took over in 2009, but the site failed to live up to its lofty ambitions. Armstrong ended up publicly firing Patch’s creative director in a conference call with all Patch employees. He later apologized for his brash manner.

Verizon is less interested in Armstrong’s media forays than the ad tech platform he’s helped build out. AOL’s tech will likely be used to power a new mobile video streaming service that Verizon is planning to launch as soon as this summer. The wireless carrier also bought Intel’s failed streaming platform technology OnCue to help develop that service.

Armstrong, who will remain in charge of AOL as it becomes a Verizon subsidiary, sees big opportunities in the new partnership. He wants to kill the memory of those dialup disks once and for all, for instance. In a memo to employees announcing the merger, he boasted, “We are building toward becoming the largest media technology company in the world.”

TIME mergers

Here’s Why Verizon Really Wants AOL

A pedestrian walks past the Verizon Communications Inc. headquarters in New York City on July 26, 2005.
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images A pedestrian walks past the Verizon Communications Inc. headquarters in New York City on July 26, 2005.

Verizon officially jumped into the world of ad business

In its acquisition announcement this morning, Verizon Wireless declared its $4.4 billion acquisition of AOL, the Internet stalwart, to be a driver of its “over the top,” or Internet-delivered, content strategy.

This will be positioned by many as a content play: Verizon owns the pipes, and AOL makes the stuff that travels through the pipes. (If that argument sounds familiar, take a walk down memory lane to AOL’s $164 billion merger with Time Warner in 2000. The only difference is, in that deal AOL was the content and Time Warner was the pipes.)

The content play makes sense, and it’s not even the first time Verizon has tried to get into the content business. Remember Sugar String, Verizon’s bizarre foray into tech news last year? The company shuttered it after a month following reports that writers were prohibited from covering politically charged topics such as net neutrality.

AOL has plenty of tech news, from Engadget and TechCrunch to the tech section of the Huffington Post. But the company has been positioning itself as much more than a content company for some time now. In January, when rumors of a Verizon-AOL tie-up first surfaced, analysts pointed to AOL’s foothold in advertising technology as the most attractive piece of the deal. CEO Tim Armstrong has been beating the technology drum, calling ad automation “the single largest trend” on the Web.

AOL’s revenue paints a clear picture of that trend. Last year, the company earned $995 million from display and search ads on the media properties it owns. It earned almost as much — $856 million — from selling ads for third party sites. That’s the advertising technology business, and it’s AOL’s fastest-growing segment. It grew 39% between 2013 and 2014. Contrast that with revenue from its in-house media operations during the same period, where display ads fell 3% and search ads grew just 4%.

Through acquisitions over the years, AOL has built up a advertising technology infrastructure that allows any content company to pay AOL to buy and sell ads on its behalf using algorithms. The rise of programmatic advertising has driven the already-low price of digital ads, such as banners and video pre-rolls, even lower because they eliminate the need for human interaction. Instead, inventory is bundled together, segmented by audience, and algorithms decide which ad will be served to which person through a split-second auction that happens each time a Web page loads.

This isn’t a business Wall Street likes or even understands. To an outside observer, the tech platforms are indistinguishable, indefensible, and in a “race to the bottom,” undercutting each other on prices. That’s why Wall Street has tanked the stocks of a number of publicly traded ad-tech companies. Rocket Fuel has watched its stock go from $56 a share when it went public in 2013 to under $9 per share. Tremor Video, which went public at $9 a share in 2013, now trades below $3. Millennial Media, which went public at $23 per share, now trades below $2.

Now Verizon owns a growing ad-tech company that happens to be in a not-exactly-growing content business. Perhaps the most astounding piece, though, is AOL’s third revenue segment, dial-up subscriptions. A legacy from its early days, AOL still makes a jaw-dropping $606.5 million from dial-up subscribers. Last year, that business shrunk just 7%.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com.

TIME Media

The Single Best Article You Will Ever Read About AOL

AOL Verizon Takeover Rumors
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images The AOL logo is posted on a sign in front of the AOL Inc. offices on February 7, 2011 in Palo Alto, California.

Dated February 7, 2000, it was written by a legend

Verizon Communications is buying America Online. In a deal valued at $4.4 billion, the telecom giant is acquiring the dial-up pioneer turned media hub turned ad-tech company. Verizon is framing the move as an expansion of the video and media offerings—AOL owns The Huffington Post, TechCrunch, and Engadget, among others—it can provide over its wireless networks.

But it is also the end of the long, often-tortured story of a New Economy darling. AOL, of course, was part of the $350 billion merger with Time Warner which signaled the top of the first dot-com bubble. (Choose your superlative: disaster, epic failure, worst merger in history…) Though much has been written about the deal, especially since its 15-year anniversary earlier this year, the best analysis is still a story written by Carol Loomis in Fortune. In a February 7, 2000 piece headlined “AOL+TWX=???,” Loomis took the deal joint-by-joint, and in so doing explained the phenomenon of AOL:

The question of whether there are going to be synergies of convergence—you will please pardon those discredited words—is, needless to say, huge, and very much a part of the murkiness that surrounds the payoff in this merger. The two companies, anticipating they’ll be joined before the end of this year, have told analysts to expect about $1 billion of incremental EBITDA in 2001. The “low-hanging fruit” in this corporate orchard, says one insider, is cuts that both companies can make in advertising and direct-mail costs as they begin to exploit one another’s marketing channels.

Read the full piece here and it’s follow-up from two years later, “AOL Time Warner’s New Math.”

The stories were brave because Fortune, like TIME, was then owned by Time Warner. But perhaps more importantly, they expose a culture of self-enrichment and self-aggrandizement that led to the very real wiping out of wealth for thousands of people. Both provide the essential preamble to the spin-off and rocky past few years AOL has weathered on the way to today’s announcement.

(Full disclosure: I worked at AOL in 2010-2011.)

TIME Business

What Comcast’s Failed Merger Tells Us About Corporate Lobbying

The Comcast Corp. logo at a news conference in Washington on June 11, 2013.
Bloomberg via Getty Images The Comcast Corp. logo at a news conference in Washington on June 11, 2013.

The question is why anyone thought they had any chance of making this deal happen in the first place

When Comcast first announced its intent to merge with Time Warner Cable in early 2014, the conventional wisdom suggested that even though everyone knew it was a terrible, anti-competitive merger, Comcast would use its lobbying muscle to ram the deal through. After all, the company spends $17 million a year on lobbying. Its CEO, Brian Roberts, played golf with the President. Its chief lobbyist, David Cohen, organized a $1.2 million fundraiser for the President. Isn’t this how Washington works?

Now, with the news late last week that Comcast was backing out of the merger after regulators sent strong we-won’t-approve-this signals, everybody is trying to explain where the conventional wisdom got it wrong. Politico noted that, “opponents are hailing Comcast’s failed strategy as a welcome sign that money can’t buy everything in Washington.” Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) attributed it to massive grassroots pressure: “We won because ordinary Americans can wield extraordinary power when they raise their voices.”

The simple reason that the merger failed was that Comcast and Time Warner Cable had a very weak case. But the key question is not why it failed. It’s why anyone thought they had any chance of making this deal happen in the first place.

The most likely explanation is that Comcast’s leaders over-estimated their influence. With so much in invested in lobbying, they had convinced themselves they could work magic in Washington. It’s an audacity that has come increasingly come to characterize corporate lobbying in Washington, as I describe in my new book, The Business of America is Lobbying. And it’s a big problem for our democracy, because it means we’re going to continue devoting our limited public policy attention to things we shouldn’t even be debating in the first place.

The New York Times’ Eric Lipton picked up on this arrogance in his post-mortem reporting. “Lawmakers and staff members on Capitol Hill, in interviews Friday, cited Comcast’s swagger in trying to promote this deal,” Lipton wrote. “They said they felt that Comcast was so convinced in the early stages that the deal would be approved that it was dismissing concerns about the transaction, or simply taking the conversation in a different direction when asked about them.”

Comcast’s over-confidence, however, is understandable. After all, the company had successfully navigated the challenges of a previous merger with NBC Universal. Comcast had 128 lobbyists in Washington in 2014, enough to weigh in on a stunning range of issues – reaching as far afield as the farm bill, and numerous tax issues. It could flood the zone, and be everywhere, all the time. In an interview with Politico, Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) marveled, “I’ve had companies come and sit with me and they would tell me that, ‘Oh, we heard in the hallways that Comcast knew we were having this meeting today.’” He continued, “And my staff and I are looking at each other like, ‘We sure as hell didn’t tell them anything.’ But that’s how they’ve blanketed Washington.”

Comcast had also bolstered its sense of influence by building up what it called “community partners” – mostly civil rights groups like the National Council of La Raza or the National Urban League, which received generous contributions from the Comcast Foundation. In return, these key Democratic constituency groups had offered their support for Comcast’s top priorities in Washington.

Clearly Comcast miscalculated in the case of this merger. In retrospect, it seems remarkable that the Justice Department would ever have endorsed the country’s top two cable operators’ merging in a way that would give a single company control of 57 percent of the national broadband market and 30 percent of the pay television market. It also seems remarkable that two companies as deeply unpopular as Comcast and Time Warner Cable thought they could convince members of Congress to ignore the widespread customer dissatisfaction.

Yet, somehow, Washington spent more than a year debating this issue, sucking up countless precious resources of time and energy both inside Congress in the larger advocacy community. Over the last 12 months, at least according to Google Trends, the “Comcast merger” has generated about as much interest as “global poverty.”

This data point can stand in for a larger problem. Corporations are the dominant actors in Washington, period. Business spends about $2.6 billion a year on reported lobbying – about 80 percent of the total lobbying expenditures and roughly 34 times the meager sums spent on lobbying by public interest groups and labor unions combined. This means that large corporations mostly drive the agenda.

Companies like Comcast and Time Warner Cable have the resources and arrogance to get Congress to seriously consider a proposal this outlandish. It’s a privilege few have. And worse, this policy aggression is a self-perpetuating cycle. The more these big companies spend, the more lobbyists they hire to make the case internally that the company ought to pick a big fight. And so they pick bigger fights, necessitating even more lobbyists.

Yet, while Comcast and Time Warner Cable may have just wasted tens of millions of dollars on lobbying, one group made out quite well: the lobbyists and consultants themselves who got paid to run their campaign, and who keep getting paid to perpetuate the cycle of ever-more ambitious lobbying. Notably, after the deal fell apart, Comcast’s CEO issued a press release showing his confidence in the company’s top lobbyist: “There is nobody better than David Cohen,” Brian Roberts wrote. “He’s incredible at what he does and we are beyond lucky that he helps passionately lead so many areas at Comcast.”

And while Comcast provoked a large public outcry due to its widespread unpopularity, few companies and mergers have anywhere close to the same potential for grassroots counter-mobilization. The biggest merger deal of 2014, like almost all big mergers, went largely unnoticed by the public (For those keeping score, that deal was a $76 million mega-merger between four energy companies that made the biggest energy infrastructure company, Kinder Morgan, even bigger. Kinder Morgan is not the household name Comcast is.) Mobilizing the public can be an effective tool where the public cares. But that only covers a limited number of issues in Washington.

Opponents of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger deserve to celebrate, at least a little. They were persistent in making sure that common sense stayed common sense, challenging as that sometimes is. But it was a rear-guard action – a battle that they never should have had to fight. Especially when currently more than half of U.S. households have only one broadband option, and across the U.S., we pay more for worse service than most other advanced industrial economies. Then again, this status quo should explain why Comcast ‘s leaders were so emboldened in the first place.

Lee Drutman is a senior fellow in the program on political reform at New America. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.

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MONEY Airlines

The Pathetic State of Airline Travel Today Was Predicted Long Ago

crowded airplane seats
Jason Hetherington—Getty Images

No one should be remotely surprised that flights today are more crowded and more expensive, with more fees and worse service. As many critics warned, this is exactly what would happen with widespread airline consolidation.

The airline business is complicated. To some extent, however, making a profit is as simple as getting as many passengers on board your company’s airplanes as possible, and charging each customer as much as possible for the services provided.

Lately, airlines have been extremely good at being profitable. Airline profits soared in 2014 amid plummeting fuel prices, and the trend has continued in 2015. The first quarter of the year is generally a slow, lackluster period in travel, yet most domestic airlines reported record-high profits for the first three months of 2015. American Airlines reportedly took in a profit of $1.2 billion in the first quarter, according to the Dallas Morning News; previously, the carrier’s best first quarter was a haul of a mere $480 million.

Historically, in a scenario like the one outlined above, airline executives could be relied upon to add flights and new routes, and/or cut airfares, with the goal of winning over new passengers and snagging market share. None of the above is happening, however. For an explanation of why this is so, look no further than the string of airline mergers that took place in recent years—and that effectively killed the robust competition that existed in the industry not long ago.

“The airline industry is increasingly looking like an uncompetitive oligopoly,” Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote in a recent New York Times analysis. Sorkin pointed to the insights of analyst Vinay Bhaskara, who in late 2014 wrote in Airway News, “We are unquestionably living in an air travel oligopoly,” in which virtually all power in the industry lies in the hands of very few players.

“I will go on record stating that I believe that 2015 will be yet another year of record profitability for US airlines,” Bhaskara wrote at the end of 2014. Based on the first quarter results, his predictions appear to be coming true. As for the idea that airlines would expand service to take advantage of low fuel prices and attempt to win over business from their competitors? Let’s just say no one should go holding their breath waiting for heated competition and price wars anytime soon. “The idea that US airlines would, once again, devolve into a war for market share is founded on a misunderstanding of the new structure of US airlines.”

This “new structure” is one in which airlines are rigorously maintaining “discipline,” as Bhaskara puts it. This highly profitable approach is one in which the airlines aren’t expanding service because they prefer to fly densely packed planes, and they aren’t cutting fares because, well, they just don’t have to as demand remains high.

The approach might come across as greedy and opportunistic. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, the marketplace we have today is one that was predicted years ago by airline merger critics. Back in 2010, when United Airlines was close to completing its acquisition of Continental, consumer advocate Bill McGee published a manifesto about the ramifications of such mergers. Among other things, his analysis showed:

When merger partners’ route maps overlap, certain cities will lose service, with fewer flight frequencies and loss of nonstops.

Airline mergers don’t improve customer service.

When one airline suddenly dominates a route where it previously competed with a merger partner, ticket prices are likely to rise—often considerably.

Likewise, over the years various consumer groups and business travel coalitions have urged regulators to stop mergers from taking place for largely the same reasons. And, based on the routinely oligopolistic tactics of airlines in the post-merger world, in which travelers based in cities like Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis have seen dramatic reductions in flights, and in which average flights in the U.S. have pushed past $500 (not including fees), the critics sure do seem to have been on to something.

Most unfortunate of all, the average airline customer should only expect more of the same approach going forward. Instead of adding flights, “Almost all of our capacity growth domestically is about putting more seats on airplanes,” American Airlines president Scott Kirby explained in a recent investment conference. “We will absolutely not lose our capacity discipline,” or the practice of limiting expansion in order to keep airfares high, United CEO Jeff Sismek said earlier this year, while announcing the company had nearly doubled profits in 2014.

Thanks to seat design “innovations,” airlines are able to cram more and more tiny seats into economy sections. This obviously makes flying worse, but that’s not stopping airlines from going forward. “When it comes to passenger comfort, the airlines are saying that this isn’t something that’s very important to them,” Eric Gonzales, an engineering professor at UMass-Amherst specializing in transportation issues, said to the Los Angeles Times. “These changes are intended solely to improve the bottom line.”

If the airline space were more competitive, it would arguably be a lot more difficult for carriers to get away with this kind of stuff. Yet they get away with this and more, including all manner of fees for services that used to be covered in the price of a ticket, plus a range of cost-cutting steps that show through in the results of a new study indicating that customer complaints, lost bags, lateness, and overbooking were all up in 2014.

As if it isn’t already clear, Brent Bowen, dean of the College of Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and a co-author of the study, explained how we got to this point: “Airline mergers and consolidations are taking a systemic toll that is bad for consumers… Performance by the airlines is slipping while they claimed this would make them better.”

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