Republic Airline Inc. v. United States Dep't of Transp., No. 11-1018

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
Decision Date06 January 2012
Docket NumberNo. 11-1018


No. 11-1018


Argued November 8, 2011
Decided January 6, 2012

On Petition for Review of an Order
of the Department of Transportation

Christopher T. Handman argued the cause for the petitioner. Robert E. Cohn, Patrick R. Rizzi and Dominic F. Perella were on brief.

Timothy H. Goodman, Senior Trial Attorney, United States Department of Transportation, argued the cause for the respondent. Robert B. Nicholson and Finnuala K. Tessier, Attorneys, United States Department of Justice, Paul M. Geier, Assistant General Counsel for Litigation, and Peter J. Plocki, Deputy Assistant General Counsel for Litigation, were on brief. Joy Park, Trial Attorney, United States Department of Transportation, entered an appearance.

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Before: HENDERSON, Circuit Judge, and WILLIAMS and RANDOLPH, Senior Circuit Judges.

Opinion for the Court filed by Circuit Judge HENDERSON.

KAREN LECRAFT HENDERSON, Circuit Judge: Republic Airline Inc. (Republic) challenges an order of the Department of Transportation (DOT) withdrawing two Republic "slot exemptions" at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (Reagan National) and reallocating those exemptions to Sun Country Airlines (Sun Country). In both an informal letter to Republic dated November 25, 2009 and its final order, DOT held that Republic's parent company, Republic Airways Holdings, Inc. (Republic Holdings), engaged in an impermissible slot-exemption transfer with Midwest Airlines, Inc. (Midwest). In so holding, DOT summarily dismissed Republic's argument that, under both DOT and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) precedent, the Republic-Midwest slot-exemption transfer was permissible because it was ancillary to Republic Holdings' acquisition of Midwest. Because DOT has departed from its precedent without adequate explanation, its decision cannot survive arbitrary and capricious review. Accordingly, we grant Republic's petition for review and vacate DOT's order.


In an effort to improve airport safety and efficiency, FAA limits the number of take-offs and landings at several of the nation's most congested and frequently delayed airports. See, e.g., Operating Limitations at N.Y. LaGuardia Airport, 71 Fed. Reg. 77,854 (Dec. 27, 2006). Historically, FAA distributed a limited number of "slots"—i.e., take-off and landing rights—at five so-called high-density airports, including Reagan National. See 14 C.F.R. § 93.123. The

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resulting slot-allocation rules are collectively known as the High Density Rule (HDR). City of New York v. Minetta, 262 F.3d 169, 172 (2d Cir. 2001) (citing 14 C.F.R. §§ 93.121-93.133, 93.211-93.229).

"By the early 1990s, however, the HDR was perceived as a barrier to improved service, in part because new air carriers were unable to establish service due to the lack of slot availability." Id. at 172-73 (citing H.R. Rep. No. 106-167, pt. 1, at 77-79 (1999)). As a result, in 1994, the Congress amended the statutory scheme to enable DOT to grant a limited number of exemptions to the slot limits. See Pub. L. No. 103-305, § 206, 108 Stat. 1569, 1584 (1994) (codified, as amended, at 49 U.S.C. § 41714(c) (2000)). These aptly-named "slot exemptions" permit take-offs and landings in addition to those available under the HDR. See id.1

Today, the HDR has been phased out at four of the five high-density airports.2 Only Reagan National continues to operate under it. At Reagan National, DOT has 20 slot exemptions which can be issued to any carrier providing nonstop service to an airport within a 1,250 mile radius. See 49

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U.S.C. §§ 41718(b), 49109. The DOT distributes the exemptions

in a manner that promotes air transportation—

(1) by new entrant air carriers and limited incumbent air carriers;
(2) to communities without existing nonstop air transportation to [Reagan National];
(3) to small communities;
(4) that will provide competitive nonstop air transportation on a monopoly nonstop route to [Reagan National]; or
(5) that will produce the maximum competitive benefits, including low fares.

Id. § 41718(b). Importantly, "[n]o exemption . . . may be bought, sold, leased, or otherwise transferred by the carrier to which it is granted." Id. § 41714(j).

On July 31, 2009, Republic Holdings acquired Midwest in a 100% stock purchase, making Midwest its wholly-owned subsidiary. At the time of the acquisition, Midwest provided three nonstop round-trip flights between Kansas City International Airport (KCI) and Reagan National each day. One of the three flights was made possible by the two slot exemptions at issue here. Two months later, on September 30, 2009, Republic sent a letter to DOT outlining the details of the acquisition and explaining that "as of November 3, 2009, Republic will operate all of Midwest's schedules under the d/b/a trade name Midwest Airlines and become the holder and operator of Midwest's [Reagan National] slot exemptions." Letter from Robert Cohn to Todd Homan, at 1 (Sep. 30, 2009). Republic further noted that, although section 41714(j) prohibits an airline from buying, selling, leasing or otherwise transferring slot exemptions:

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[DOT] precedent in the America West/US Airways, American Airlines/Reno Air, and Southwest Airlines/ATA acquisitions establish[es] that the prohibition against transferring slot exemptions does not apply to ancillary transfers which are the product of a corporate acquisition or merger, such as Republic/Midwest.

Id. at 4. Republic assured DOT that, just as in the cited cases, it intended to use the slot exemptions in the same manner for which they had been granted. Although Republic planned to replace Midwest's Boeing 717s with Embraer regional jets, "there [would] be no [other] perceptible change to the services offered." Id. at 2. Indeed, Republic even maintained Midwest's brand name. Id. ("Republic will continue the Midwest branded service, including services at slot controlled airports . . . under the d/b/a trade name Midwest Airlines.").

On November 25, 2009, DOT sent Republic an informal letter rejecting Republic's proposed action and "conclud[ing] that a 'transfer' of exemptions ha[d] in fact occurred." Letter from Susan Kurland to Robert Cohn, at 1 (Nov. 25, 2009) (November 25th Letter). According to DOT, once acquired, Midwest no longer existed as a carrier; thus, Republic's right to the exemptions resulted from an impermissible slot-exemption transfer. Id. at 1-2. DOT informed Republic that it could continue to use the slot exemptions pending a formal reallocation proceeding and could apply, through that proceeding, to keep the slot exemptions. Id. at 2 ("[T]he Department will resolicit applications for the two [Reagan National] slot exemptions, and then determine which application best satisfies the criteria imposed in section 41718(b). Republic is of course invited to submit an application for Kansas City (or for any other service it believes will best satisfy the statutory criteria)." (emphasis removed)).

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Republic did just that. On September 30, 2010, Republic applied to retain the slot exemptions for KCI/Reagan National round-trip service, arguing inter alia that it offered the lowest fares, that continuing the route would maximize competition and that Kansas City's economy would suffer from the loss of a daily direct flight to Reagan National. See Application of Republic Airline Inc., Docket No. DOT-OST-2000-7182, at 8-10 (Sep. 30, 2010). Republic also renewed its argument that the slot exemptions were "categorically not subject to reallocation" because "under well-settled precedent, [Republic Holdings'] acquisition of Midwest [] did not constitute a prohibited transfer that would have warranted reallocation." Id. at 11 n.9.

On December 10, 2010, DOT issued Order No. 2010-1216 (Final Order), withdrawing the exemptions and reallocating them to Sun Country for nonstop round-trip service between Lansing, Michigan and Reagan National. Final Order at 1. In two brief...

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