A proposed acquisition of Hawaiian Airlines by Alaska Airlines would be bad news for those traveling between the U.S. mainland and Hawaii. The combined company would have a huge share of that market and would thus be in a position to keep fares sky high.
Another negative feature of the deal is that it would enhance the position of a company with a checkered regulatory compliance record. As shown in Violation Tracker, Alaska Air and its subsidiaries have been cited more than 200 times by the Federal Aviation Administration for a variety of safety violations involving issues such as maintenance, hazardous waste and security practices.
All the airlines have such violations, and the larger carriers have been fined more times, reflecting their wider operations. But in relation to its size, Alaska Air’s record is worse than that of its counterparts. Its total of 220 FAA violations is not far behind that of Southwest’s total of 270, even though Southwest carries about four times as many passengers.
Alaska Air’s violations also tend to be more serious. Its 220 cases have generated more than $10 million in fines (the FAA’s penalty structure is not very onerous), while the total from the 539 fines paid by the much larger Delta Air Lines is below $9 million. (All the FAA statistics are limited to cases with fines of at least $5,000.)
Alaska Air has also racked up a series of penalties from the Transportation Department’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division. Including matters involving Virgin America, which Alaska Air acquired in 2016, there have been 13 of those cases with total fines of $777,500.
Then there is the issue of employment practices. Earlier this year, a federal judge in California ordered Alaska Air to pay nearly $31 million to a class of flight attendants who had sued Virgin for failing to pay proper overtime pay and failing to pay for break time as required under California law. The workers originally won $77 million in damages, but the company appealed and got part of the award overturned. Alaska Air also tried to get the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out the rest of the award but the high court declined to hear the case. The matter thus went back to the trial court, where the judge settled on the $31 million payout.
Hawaiian Airlines has a somewhat less egregious regulatory track record. It has been fined 31 times by the FAA and five times by the Transportation Department’s consumer division. There is every reason to suspect that if the merger goes through, its compliance practices would come to look more like that of its new parent.
When antitrust regulators review a proposed merger, they have to give primary consideration to the potential market impacts. Yet it is also worth keeping in mind that as companies grow larger, they often tend to become less mindful of safety matters and other regulatory obligations. Or if they already have a lax approach to compliance, that problem is likely to become worse. All this is just one more reason bigger is usually not better.