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After a blocked merger, the future of Spirit Airlines is uncertain


For now, JetBlue is not buying Spirit Airlines. A federal judge in Massachusetts blocked the proposed purchase last month, ruling it was anti-competitive. That triggered worries about Spirit's ability to stay aloft as an independent airline based in South Florida. Tom Hudson with member station WLRN in Miami reports.

TOM HUDSON, BYLINE: When that federal judge said the two airlines could not merge, Helane Becker uttered the B word - bankruptcy.

HELANE BECKER: It was really aimed more at the judge than it was at Spirit.

HUDSON: Becker follows the airline industry for investment bank TD Cowen. She wrote an analysis concluding Spirit may be headed to bankruptcy without a merger.

BECKER: The judge decided not to throw them a lifeline. They're kind of drowning, and we just want them to be able to get to the other side, where they can thrive.

HUDSON: Judge Thomas Young based part of his rejection of the merger on protecting passengers of ultra-low-cost airlines. At the end of his decision, he wrote, quote, "to those dedicated customers of Spirit, this one's for you." But Spirit's challenge is staying independent. It has not made a profit since before the pandemic. It has about $1.5 billion in cash and credit available to it, but it also has about $1 billion of IOUs coming due next year.

BOB SWINDELL: The real challenge comes in with the debt and having to refinance that with interest rates at a higher level. That does impact their bottom line significantly.

HUDSON: Bob Swindell is the CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance. It's the economic development arm of Broward County. That's where Spirit is headquartered and is the largest carrier at the Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport.

SWINDELL: I think there's probably some flexibility, you know, and maybe some margin they can bring back into the business, ultimately raising prices a little bit. I know that the passengers don't like to hear that.

HUDSON: Spirit did not respond to a request for comment. Its share price has been cut in half since the judge's ruling. Both Spirit and JetBlue have requested an expedited appeal to their blocked merger agreement. But financial analyst Becker thinks Spirit just needs to move on and buckle up.

BECKER: They're going to cut the least profitable routes and make sure the most profitable routes can continue to fly.

HUDSON: Already, Spirit passengers will no longer hear this.



HUDSON: It cut its flights in and out of the Mile-High City last month. For NPR News, I'm Tom Hudson in Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACOB MANN BIG BAND'S "DON'T FLY SPIRIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Hudson is WLRN's Senior Economics Editor and Special Correspondent.
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