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Holding pattern ends for CLT, US Airways

Back in August, the government’s leading antitrust lawyer told the Observer editorial board that a few concessions by US Airways and American Airlines wouldn’t be enough to clear the way for the airlines’ merger. Nothing short of the courts killing the deal would suffice, Bill Baer said.

We’re not sure why he and Attorney General Eric Holder changed their minds, but the Charlotte region should be glad they did.

The airlines and the Department of Justice announced Tuesday that they had settled the government’s lawsuit aimed at blocking the merger. The combined airline agrees to divest 104 slots at Washington’s Reagan National, 34 at New York’s LaGuardia and two gates at each of five other airports.

Pretty mundane concessions for a deal the government objected to so vociferously less than three months ago.

While there’s little for consumers to celebrate about the airline industry and its future, Tuesday’s agreement gives Charlotte a boost. The combined airline is expected to be the world’s biggest, with 6,700 flights a day to 336 destinations. Charlotte Douglas will have the distinction of being the second-largest hub (to Dallas-Fort Worth) in that mega-airline.

The deal guarantees that the new airline will keep its hub in Charlotte for three years, but CEO Doug Parker said he has every intention of keeping it here “forever.”

“This is fantastic news for Charlotte,” Parker told the editorial board Tuesday. Charlotte “will be a critical part of a much bigger network. … The Charlotte hub is going to be an important part of a bigger airline.” And Charlotte travelers will have more destinations to choose from with the new American, he said.

Parker wouldn’t comment about the Jerry Orr situation but called Charlotte Douglas “a model for airports around the United States and the world.”

Charlotte Douglas has long been one of the city’s most important tools for recruiting business, and the merger should only strengthen that. Fortune 500 companies and international firms can come to Charlotte knowing it has a network of flights that larger cities envy.

Charlotte Chamber President Bob Morgan told us Tuesday’s news was “huge” for Charlotte. “It gives us certainty we haven’t had. The airport is our No. 1 economic development asset and to take away that cloud of uncertainty makes it even stronger.”

A cloud of uncertainty still looms over the industry, of course. American and US Airways were forced to make this deal to survive against Delta and United, which were themselves products of massive mergers. Flying is already an unpleasant experience for many travelers. The disappearance of one carrier after another over the past decade, and the industry economics that provoked that, offer little reason to think things will improve soon.

Even so, the Justice Department was right to settle. Its effort to stop this deal was surprising, given that its recent approval of similar mergers is what permitted the shrinking competition it decries.

Justice and the airlines both said Tuesday the settlement was good for the traveling public. We hope so. It was certainly good for Charlotte.

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