UAL CEO Optimistic Can Address CAL Merger Concerns

May 25, 2010

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The chief executive of United Airlines is confident that any US regulatory concerns about the carrier's proposed merger with Continental Airlines will be satisfactorily addressed.

Glenn Tilton also told reporters on Tuesday after an industry conference he is "very optimistic" the deal can clear antitrust review by year's end, the deadline set by the two companies when they proposed their merger earlier this month.

"My view remains very optimistic we can address the concerns they have expressed, well within the timetable," Tilton said.

Tilton said the companies have already had "initial conversations" with Justice Department staff and he expects a "full and robust review" of the all-stock transaction.

Antitrust officials focus on how the proposal would impact competition, if at all.

Antitrust experts, analysts and industry consultants see few, if any, regulatory problems and widely anticipate government approval.

However, they say United and Continental may be required to divest some assets at one or more airports, possibly in the New York area where Continental is strong at Newark, to enhance competition.

Tilton would not discuss specific antitrust matters although he called the merger necessary to reduce industry fragmentation and industry overcapacity.

He and Continental chief executive Jeff Smisek are scheduled to appear before US Senate lawmakers at two hearings on Thursday to answer questions about the merger.

US Attorney General Eric Holder told a congressional committee this month that his agency would conduct a vigorous review of the proposed merger but would not take longer than necessary.

Two other airline chief executives, Dave Barger of JetBlue Airways and Bryan Bedford of Republic Airways, joined Tilton, union, government and other industry officials at a Transportation Department conference on the future of US aviation.

With his deal on the table, Tilton still believes that consolidation "extending all the way down to the regionals" is a "necessary and good thing."

Barger said he does not believe the industry -- after the 2008 merger of Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines, and United and Continental -- will be done "with M&A activity."

But he said JetBlue was neither seeking a purchase nor did it want to be acquired. He did say, however, that the company based at New York's Kennedy airport, an international gateway, would pursue more marketing deals with overseas carriers.

JetBlue said earlier this month it would cooperate on an e-ticketing venture with South African Airways at JFK and has a similar deal with Germany's Lufthansa.

(Reuters)