JetBlue, Spirit appeal US judge’s ruling blocking merger

By David Shepardson and Nate Raymond

WASHINGTON/BOSTON (Reuters) -JetBlue Airways and Spirit Airlines said on Friday they will appeal a federal judge’s ruling that blocked the air carriers’ planned tie-up on the grounds that the proposed merger would violate U.S. antitrust law.

The appeal came after U.S. District Judge William Young in Boston on Tuesday sided with the U.S. Department of Justice in holding that JetBlue’s planned $3.8 billion acquisition of ultra-low-cost carrier Spirit was anticompetitive and would harm consumers.

The airlines filed a notice late on Friday that they will appeal his ruling to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In a statement, the companies said the appeal notice filing was “consistent with the requirements of the merger agreement.”

The Justice Department declined to comment.

The appeal continues the court fight to keep the merger alive, a deal Spirit needs as it faces financial difficulties, including the grounding of numerous jets due to a powdered-metal issue in its geared turbofan (GTF) engine.

Spirit shares rose 12% after the notice of appeal in after-hours trading on Friday but are still down more than 50% since Tuesday’s ruling. JetBlue shares were down 2.6% late on Friday.

Reuters reported earlier that Spirit was seeking to convince JetBlue Airways to appeal the ruling blocking the tie-up between the sixth- and seventh-largest U.S. airlines, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Spirit had told JetBlue that their deal contract requires them to exhaust legal options to complete the move, and that they should appeal the judge’s ruling, the sources said.

The appeal flows out of a lawsuit by the Justice Department and the Democratic state attorneys general from six states and the District of Columbia, who argued the merger would lead to fewer flights and higher prices for millions of Americans.

Following a non-jury trial, Young sided with the Justice Department, finding that the deal would harm consumers. He said it would eliminate Spirit’s low fares and its ability to put pressure on other higher-priced airlines.

It’s unclear how long an appeal could take, though often appeals of court rulings can take months or longer. JetBlue faces a deadline in July to close the merger.

Should the deal not close by then, the two sides could either agree to terminate the merger or extend the closing date.

Earlier on Friday, Spirit said it was assessing options to refinance its 2025 debt maturities amid concerns over its balance sheet, and said its merger deal remained intact.

Spirit has been struggling to return to sustainable profitability amid rising operating costs and persistent supply-chain problems. That has raised concerns about the company’s ability to repay its debt that is due to mature next year.

The airline this month completed a series of sale and leaseback transactions covering dozens of planes in a bid to repay about $465 million of debt on those jets.

Following Tuesday’s ruling, some analysts said the carrier might contemplate a bankruptcy filing to streamline its balance sheet and reorganize into a financially robust airline.

Reuters reported on Thursday that Spirit was looking at options to refinance its debt and was not considering restructuring.

(Reporting by David Shepardson in Washington and Nate Raymond in BostonEditing by Jonathan Oatis, Chris Sanders, Matthew Lewis and Anna Driver)