WASHINGTON -- A decision Friday by a federal district judge to schedule a November trial could work in favor of American Airlines and US Airways in their quest to fend off a government lawsuit and create the world's largest airline by year's end, according to a range of industry experts.
In a courtroom conference at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly seemed skeptical of the Justice Department's request for a March trial date, calling it "too far off."
Speaking outside the courthouse Friday, lawyers for the airlines confidently predicted victory.
"We're going to win," said Rich Parker, an attorney for US Airways.
But antitrust experts say the airlines shouldn't dismiss the ability of the Justice Department to flex its muscles in its attempt to block the $11 billion deal -- nor should they underestimate a "tough-minded" judge with a deep background in antitrust cases, including a government lawsuit against Microsoft. That case ultimately ended in a settlement.
"She'll put the government through its paces, as well as the industry," said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond. "She's certainly seen a lot of assistant U.S. attorneys in her courtroom."
"She will encourage them to try to settle it, if possible," Tobias added.
The airlines and many industry observers reacted with surprise earlier this month when the Justice Department's Antitrust Division filed suit against the merger; six states and the District of Columbia joined the lawsuit. The department had approved three large airline mergers in recent years: Delta-Northwest, United-Continental and Southwest-AirTran.
But the department successfully blocked AT&T's attempt to purchase rival T-Mobile in 2011, a $39 billion deal that would have created the nation's largest cellphone provider. After the Senate in December confirmed William Baer as the Justice Department's antitrust chief, the department sued to block a merger of two large beer makers. It later reached a settlement with the companies.
Some saw it as a welcome sign of renewed vigor in the department.
"If people take antitrust laws seriously, they should not be surprised to see them being enforced," said Bert Foer, president of the American Antitrust Institute, which opposes the merger.