Meanwhile regulators let Delta and United form trans-Atlantic joint ventures with European partners, immunized against anti-trust violations. They would not let AMR do the same thing. AMR was not approved until 2010, long after Delta and United. Joint ventures can add hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue, but it takes years to make them work, because partner airlines start out less as partners and more as turf-protectors.

As a result of its history, by 2011, AMR was smaller than its two principal competitors because it had declined to engage in another merger. It had higher costs because, trying to be moral, it had avoided bankruptcy. It had lower employee morale because its executives had appeared to be greedy. It had lower trans-Atlantic revenues because regulators were misguided. It had no East Coast hub, due to history.

This is the hand CEO Tom Horton inherited when Arpey retired in November. Not Horton's fault, but this is a tough hand to play, even though some things can be fixed in bankruptcy court.

Now let us briefly examine the history of America West since it sought a merger with bankrupt ATA in 2004. That effort failed, but CEO Doug Parker said it confirmed that bankruptcy court is a good place to shed unwanted costs in a merger. In 2005, Parker's team roped in bankrupt US Airways. They took two weak carriers, put them together, and created a strong one.

In 2006, Parker pursued a merger with Delta. It failed dramatically and some said that made it appear the America West people were in over their heads. But the team learned it needed support from the acquiree's work force to make a merger work. This is the biggest advantage they have gained in the AMR case.

Subsequent efforts to merge with United also failed. It was said that US Airways was used by United to enable a deal with Continental. Probably so. But Parker said United's merger benefited all airlines by enabling reduced industry capacity.

In short, the America West management team has been pursuing mergers for the past eight years. They are not dumb and they have learned from each effort, from the failures as well as the single success.

This time, chasing a wounded prey, I don't think they can be stopped.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

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