The decision by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to sue over the American Airlines-US Airways merger caught people by surprise. Abbott was rightfully criticized for going against his free market principles, both by his opponent in the GOP gubernatorial primary and by pundits who normally applaud him. He defended his lawsuit with an excellently-written, but flawed, op-ed in The Dallas Morning News. This was followed by a bizarre interview with Dallas radio talk show host Mark Davis. He switched sides over a month later after getting a legal agreement with American. He was praised for this, but people also, legitimately, raised their eyebrows at the entire situation.
The prevailing opinion on Abbott’s switch is he’s simply a politician, or just caved to pressure. This may be true, however, it may be too simple an answer. Abbott isn’t the kind of person to get into an lawsuit, then bail out under public pressure. He’s too smart and it’s not his nature.
Abbott’s decision to join the federal suit might be a feint; a way to push American Airlines to settle. It’s genius. Abbott himself said the two sides had been negotiating since rumors of the merger started. He further remarked the negotiations picked up once the federal suit was filed.
Abbott’s actions make sense, especially viewed through the lens of Saul Alinsky tactics.
RULE 12: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”: Abbott’s Dallas Morning News op-ed provides the first example. He uses the word “oligopoly” to stigmatize the airline industry. It makes them look like the “bad guy.” Abbott characterizes them as a bunch of businesses working together, rather than competing against each other. He’s ridiculing them, so they’ll come to the negotiating table with Texas. Alinsky loved to use this strategy. Abbott also tries to personalize the merger by pointing out how it might affect people’s pocketbooks. He’s using Alinsky’s method of going after people’s heartstrings to cut off support. It almost works.
RULE 9: “The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.”: Abbott proclaimed Texas was leading the challenge in the suit against the airline, when the suit was filed. None of the other states involved used this type of language; instead stating they simply joined the suit. This implies Texas would be working hand-in-hand with the Justice Department. Alinsky always suggested the threat is worse than the actual thing. It’s a worse case scenario and something the airlines were probably preparing for.
But it’s how the agreement is written which suggests Abbott’s lawsuit is a feint.
The agreement is relatively simple: American-US Airways promises to keep the airline based in Fort Worth, along with daily flights to-and-from 22 Texas airports. Abbott cites the Texas airports as the top reason why he sued in the first place. American had always promised the flights wouldn’t stop and that they wouldn’t leave Fort Worth, but now Abbott has it in a binding court document. American can ask for the agreement to be modified or terminated, but it specifically states it “may be granted in the sole discretion of the Attorney General, acting in good faith.” In other words, the AG has the final say.
RULE 4: “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.”: The legal agreement between Texas and American/U.S. Airways does this. The airlines always planned on keeping the merged company in Fort Worth and not cut any services. Now Texas has it in legal writing. A binding contract. If the airlines don’t agree to it, they’ll be taken to court.
RULE 11: “The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.”: Abbott may have turned heads by suing, but he and the state come out ahead here. It’s a genius move, which benefits Texas. Former President Calvin Coolidge was someone who recommended parties settle their differences outside of court and it helped him keep clients. This is a similar situation. Both sides have a constructive alternative. The legal agreement means Texas gets out of the suit, keeps the airline’s headquarters in Dallas-Fort Worth and the routes intact. It’s a win for both sides.
There’s still the question whether future attorneys general will use this type of strategy with other companies. Free market capitalism truly works when the government stays out. Agreements like this could set a dangerous precedent if legal minds start thinking this way.
Either way, what Abbott did is a legal victory for Texas and he should be applauded for it.