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Justice Department set to block JetBlue's $3.8 billion deal for Spirit Airlines

JetBlue CEO on Spirit merger
JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes talks potential merger with Spirit Airlines and new direct flights 08:31

Federal antitrust enforcers are preparing to file a lawsuit seeking to block JetBlue Airways' proposed $3.8 billion acquisition of Spirit Airlines.

The deal, announced in July of 2022 after JetBlue topped a rival bid for Spirit from Frontier Airlines, would create the fifth-largest carrier in the U.S. 

Lawyers for the U.S. Department of Justice could move to halt the transaction as early as Tuesday, CBS News confirmed. 

A spokesperson for the agency declined to comment.

Robin Hayes, CEO of New York-based JetBlue, said the airline is disappointed, but not surprised, by the government's potential lawsuit. 

"We said when we got the offer approved by the Spirit shareholders last year that we didn't think we would close 'til the first half of 2024, you know, expecting a trial," he told "CBS Mornings" on Tuesday.

JetBlue is expected to fight a Justice Department suit in court.

If the deal closes, it would be the largest airline industry merger since Alaska Air bought Virgin America in 2016 for $2.6 billion.

Hayes has said that combining JetBlue and Spirit, a Florida-based discount carrier, would spur competition in the airline industry. In defending the merger, JetBlue said Monday that the two airlines mostly compete with other major carriers, notably American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines. JetBlue and Spirit overlap on no more than 11% of their respective nonstop routes, according to JetBlue.

How the Spirit Airlines and JetBlue's $3.8 billion merger could affect budget travel 05:02

The combined airline would have a fleet of roughly 460 aircraft and would add more than 1,700 daily flights to more than 125 destinations in 30 countries, JetBlue said last year. Together, the companies would have 9% of the market, compared with the 16% to 24% share held by each of the four largest airlines, JetBlue added. 

"This is not Pepsi buying Coke," Hayes said, adding that "JetBlue and Spirit together will be 8% or 9%" of the market for air travel in the U.S. "Most people are still going to be flying on the other airlines. That's where you're going to save the really big dollars — by having a bigger JetBlue."

JetBlue's Spirit purchase has also faced opposition from other quarters. A coalition of consumers and flight attendants in November sued to stop the deal on grounds it would let the combined carrier dominate certain routes, according to Bloomberg Law.

The Justice Department, along with six states and the District of Columbia, in 2021 also sued to block JetBlue and American from consolidating their operations in Boston and New York City, arguing that it would harm competition.

Although the government is expected to challenge the JetBlue-Spirit deal, some Wall Street analysts think the airlines would prevail in court.

"While we expect the merger to be challenged, we do not expect it to be stopped, due to JetBlue and Spirit's low market shares and the entrance of new passenger airlines into the market," Benjamin Salisbury of Height Securities told investors in a research note.

Securing regulatory clearance to compete the transaction could require JetBlue to divest some of its operations in New York, Boston, and Florida, as well potentially end its codeshare agreement with American, he added.

CBS News' Jeff Pegues and Analisa Novak contributed to this report.

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