Abbott’s Opposition to Airline Merger Baffles Conservatives

by Betsy Woodruff

Greg Abbott, for perhaps the first time in his political career, has managed what no one expected: He’s got conservatives bristling. The Texas attorney general, who’s made a name for himself in part by suing the Department of Justice over, well, just about everything, has joined with Eric Holder in opposing the merger of American Airlines and U.S. Airways. And it’s left a number of the state’s conservative leaders baffled.

The odd pairing has already drawn ire from the Dallas and Fort Worth chambers of commerce, per the Dallas News. Influential conservative leaders in the state seem to share befuddlement about the attorney general’s move. Tom Giovanetti, president of the Institute for Policy Innovation, tells me that at the monthly Dallas Conservative Luncheon earlier this week — attended by local elected officials, tea-party leaders, Representative Michael Burgess, think-tank staffers, and other influential Texas conservatives — the general consensus was that Abbott’s opposition to the merger was puzzling, inconsistent with his conservative principles, and a boon for his primary opponent.

“It was like a Pauken campaign meeting,” says Mark Davis, a talk-show host for Salem Communications and columnist for the Dallas Morning News who also attended the lunch. “We were filled with nothing but good advice for him,” he adds.

Tom Pauken, Reagan alum and former chairman of the Texas Republican party, is also running for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, but his shot at defeating Abbott is very, very, very long — at best. And Abbott’s support of the airline merger hasn’t changed that.

“It would be wrong to overblow this as if somehow, ‘Woah woah woah the whole race for Texas governor, the whole apple cart’s been upset,’” says Giovanetti. “It’s been more a sort of a thing where people were caught off guard and sort of puzzled, and it provides Mr. Pauken with the tiniest little crack of an opening.”

Abbott defended his move in an op-ed published last month in Dallas News. He writes:

The legal action is based on evidence such as internal emails, investor presentations and other comments by top executives of the airlines. Those documents reveal their thinking about how shrinking competition in the airline industry — and, hence the merger — will allow the airlines to pile even more bag fees, ticket change fees and increased fares on customers. American and US Airways compete directly on thousands of heavily traveled routes. The merger would allow the new company to shed that competition and distort the marketplace — while harming competition for nearly 200 Texas routes.

But don’t take my word for it; take the word of the airlines: The president of US Airways — the company American is trying to merge with — said that consolidation among airline competitors helped pave the way for airlines to hike fares. He later noted that it’s “impossible to overstate the benefit” of mergers in giving airlines the ability to impose new fees. He also said that they were “able to pass along to customers” “three successful fare increases” because of mergers and consolidation in the airline industry.

A month later, many Texas conservative leaders still aren’t sold.

“Abbott has almost all positives and virtually no negatives,” Davis says. “That’s what makes this so weird.”

“It’s like having Governor Perry come out and say, ‘Eh, state’s rights thing — not that big a deal,’” he adds.