Airlines put on antitrust law alert Northwest route plans led to move

April 05, 1993|By Martin Tolchin | Martin Tolchin,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration has signaled to the nation's airlines that it plans to vigorously enforce federal antitrust laws, in contrast to the previous Republican administrations.

But administration officials say they are not planning to reverse the course of airline deregulation under which carriers have operated since 1978.

The White House's signal came last week when the Transportation Department forced Northwest Airlines to abandon plans to start three routes in competition with a new airline.

Of the change, the secretary of transportation, Federico F. Pena, said: "This administration has a much different view than the previous Republican administrations about the anti-competitive behavior of airlines in a deregulated environment. Our view is to be more watchful about anti-competitive behavior and to take action on a case-by-case basis whenever appropriate."

"This does not mean that we are returning to a reregulated environment," Mr. Pena continued in a recent phone interview. "We would like to see as many U.S. carriers as possible, and we will take action to foster competition, particularly where we see anti-competitive behavior aimed at eliminating U.S. carriers."

The administration acted after Reno Air, a Nevada-based line that started flying last July, complained that Northwest was seeking the routes to destroy Reno. Northwest had planned to compete with Reno on four routes, from Minneapolis to Reno and from Reno to Seattle, Los Angeles and San Diego.

Northwest dropped its plan for the three routes to the West Coast.

The Transportation Department cannot prevent a domestic airline from starting a domestic route. But Mr. Pena told Northwest officials that he would strongly recommend that the Justice Department take antitrust action if it flew the new routes. Northwest demurred.

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