Amid a federal probe of airline pricing practices, a search on popular air travel booking websites shows virtually identical ticket pricing between popular city pairs on several carriers.
The Justice Department confirmed Wednesday that it is investigating “unlawful coordination” among major airlines. The Associated Press first reported the probe, which seeks to determine whether the few remaining carriers have colluded to keep ticket prices high.
American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and Southwest Airlines all confirmed that they have received letters from the Justice Department and would cooperate with the investigation.
Those four carriers control about 80 percent of the domestic air travel market.
If not for the radical consolidation we have seen in the airline industry in the last few years, we probably would not even be having this conversation.
Roger Dow, President and CEO, U.S. Travel Association
Comparison websites such as Expedia, Orbitz, Kayak, Hotwire and Priceline are supposed to help consumers shop for the best ticket prices. But a search on those sites shows they may not have much choice with some round-trip flights.
For example, tickets for nonstop flights to five destinations served by two competing carriers from Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina are largely identical.
– A round-trip economy class ticket from Charlotte to Chicago O’Hare, departing on Sept. 9 and returning Sept. 14, costs $252 on both United and American.
– An economy round-trip ticket from Charlotte to Houston Intercontinental on those days costs $327 on those same two carriers.
– An economy round trip on American and Delta from Charlotte to Detroit Metropolitan on those same days costs $350.
– A round-trip flight from Charlotte to New York’s LaGuardia airport costs $220 on American and Delta, while a round trip from Charlotte to Newark Liberty on the same days costs $199 on American and United.
Similar pricing can be found on some of the most popular city pairs in the country, and not just on the largest airlines.
An economy nonstop round trip from Los Angeles International to John F. Kennedy International in New York costs $397 on Delta, American and JetBlue.
An economy nonstop round trip from Dallas-Fort Worth to New York LaGuardia costs $186 on American, Spirit Airlines and Virgin America.
A spokesman for JetBlue, Philip Stewart, and a spokeswoman for Spirit, Irisaida Mendez, said that those airlines had not received letters from the Justice Department.
According to the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics, airfares have risen 13 percent in the past five years.
4 The number of big air carriers remaining after a series of mergers since 2008, down from eight.
Meanwhile, mergers since 2008 have consolidated eight major carriers into four. Delta and Northwest merged that year, followed by United and Continental in 2010. Southwest bought its rival discount carrier AirTran in 2011, making it the largest domestic carrier.
The Justice Department had few issues with those consolidations, but it briefly challenged the merger plans of American and US Airways on antitrust grounds. The airlines reached a settlement with the department, and the merger went forward in 2013.
Before the settlement, employees of both airlines came to Capitol Hill to protest the Justice Department lawsuit, carrying signs that said “let us compete together.”
Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, a group that opposes airline consolidation, said the mergers had created less competition, not more.
“If not for the radical consolidation we have seen in the airline industry in the last few years,” he said in a statement, “we probably would not even be having this conversation.”
Joshua Freed, a spokesman for American, said the industry remains highly competitive, has added capacity and lowered average fares.
“We will cooperate fully with the investigation,” he said in a statement, “and demonstrate that the last two years have presented an entirely new competitive landscape that has greatly benefited air travel consumers.”
Daniel Desrochers and Samantha Ehlinger of the Washington Bureau and Andrea Ahles of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram contributed.