Like the merger that it facilitates, the settlement between the Justice Department and merger hopefuls American and US Airways will have its boosters and its detractors. Put us down as a booster, but with an asterisk.
We can't bring ourselves to say it's a good deal, but it's not bad. It allows American and US Airways to proceed with a transaction that, on balance, is no more odious than the megamergers that preceded and, in fact, triggered it.
But it seems to us that the principal effect of the deal is not to fix any problem inherent in the link-up of these two carriers but to undo some of the damage done by the Transportation Department in 2011 when it approved a Delta-US Airways slot swap.
In that deal, Delta acquired most of US Airways' slots at New York's LaGuardia, and US Airways got 84 of Delta's slots at Washington's Reagan National.
It is interesting to note that in the merger settlement, American and US Airways have agreed to reduce their Washington slot holdings by 104 slots, an even greater amount.
Without the divestiture, the merged carrier would have nearly 70% of the Washington slots. With the divestiture, it will still dominate the market with well over half.
The rest of the divestitures -- gates and facilities at five other U.S. airports -- do not impose much of a burden on the merger partners and don't do much to address any issues of national scope.
For example, American is required by the agreement to relinquish two gates at Love Field in Dallas that it isn't using and that are leased to Delta. At Miami, the carriers will be required to give up two US Airways gates on the J Concourse where American has no facilities.
Similarly, giving up two gates each at Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles will hardly reduce the muscle mass of the merged carrier and will have little effect on the multitude of small markets (such as Lexington, Ky., to Syracuse, N.Y.) that featured so prominently in the Justice Department's initial list of concerns.
In short, these are token concessions.
Critics of the Justice Department's approach to this merger say that the paltry nature of these concessions merely illustrates the weakness of the government's case.
That may be true of the gates, but it's different with slots. Airport operators are required by law to make terminal space available on reasonable terms to all air carriers. This does not mean it's cheap or easy for new entrants to get gate space at these airports, but it is possible.
Slots are something else again.
Takeoff and landing slots at Washington and New York are creations of the federal air traffic control system. They are time slots for accessing the public air space, and they are virtually impossible for new entrants to acquire because the government allows incumbent carriers to "own" them.
This is where the asterisk comes in.
Judging from the remedies imposed, the real reason the Justice Department went to court was not to mitigate the effects of this merger on the national route map, but to correct a failure in the way these air traffic control privileges are bought, sold and traded among the haves to the detriment of the have-nots.
Under a more enlightened slot policy, the market for slots at Washington would never have gotten this concentrated to begin with. In the guise of fixing a "bad" merger, what this deal really does is correct a failure of the government's policy toward slots.