Innovation

U.S. v. Sabre: Putting the Innovation Theory of Harm to the Test?

In its recent complaint challenging the $360 million acquisition of Farelogix by Sabre, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) appears to have left the door open to offering proof that harm to innovation in the market for airline bookings is a separate and independent basis to block the merger. When the case goes to trial in January 2020, watch to see if DOJ uses this case to provide a roadmap for the evidence and analytical tools to analyze innovation effects in a technology merger.

The Sabre/Farelogix Lawsuit

The DOJ complaint alleges that Sabre’s acquisition of Farelogix is a “dominant firm’s attempt to eliminate a disruptive competitor after years of trying to stamp it out.” Sabre operates the largest global distribution system (“GDS”) in the United States. A GDS is a computerized system that allows brick-and-mortar and online travel agents to search for fares and schedules and book flights across multiple airlines. The complaint alleges Farelogix is a disruptive competitor that has eroded Sabre’s dominance in airline bookings. Farelogix offers an innovative booking service that allows airlines to bypass GDSs and connect directly to travel agencies. Farelogix has also pioneered the next-generation technology standard, called “New Distribution Capability” (“NDC”). NDC offers more advanced communications between airlines and travel agents and gives airlines greater flexibility to offer travelers ancillary products and services, such as priority boarding and Wi-Fi.

The complaint alleges that over the years Sabre has used its dominant position to engage in a broad range of anticompetitive conduct to delay adoption of NDC and to impede Farelogix’s ability to compete . Despite Sabre’s efforts, Farelogix has loosened Sabre’s grip on the market for airline bookings which has given the airlines leverage to negotiate lower fees from the GDSs. In addition, competition from Farelogix has pushed Sabre to update its own outdated airline booking technology. In spite of Sabre’s efforts to hobble Farelogix, demand for NDC has steadily grown and Sabre has recognized Farelogix as an existential threat to its business model. According to DOJ, “[i]nstead of innovating to compete with Farelogix, Sabre has resorted to eliminating the competitive threat by acquiring Farelogix” and the “acquisition would wipe out this competition and innovation, harming airlines and American travelers.”

In a press statement released the same day the complaint was filed, Sabre wrote that the “DOJ’s claims lack a basis in reality and reflect a fundamental misunderstanding” of the airline booking market. In its answer, Sabre argues the transaction is procompetitive because it will accelerate the delivery of new technology to the airline booking market by combining Farelogix’s NDC technology and retailing capabilities with Sabre’s travel agent network and global footprint. Sabre challenges DOJ’s conclusion that Farelogix is a particularly disruptive and innovative competitor. Sabre contends Farelogix is “not disruptive today and will not become so in the future.” Farelogix’s booking service earned only $7 million in revenues in 2018 and has close to a zero percent share of the airline booking markets alleged in the complaint. Sabre further contends Farelogix is not poised to disrupt the market because there is nothing unique about Farelogix’s technology. NDC is an open standard that is freely available and at least 39 other firms are certified to provide NDC solutions.

Harm to Innovation

Traditional merger analysis has focused on price competition—the merged firm’s ability to raise price or reduce output. In recent decades, nonprice competition—the merged firm’s ability to reduce quality and innovation—has become an important dimension of merger analysis. The emphasis on innovation is nothing new. Section 6.4 of the DOJ/FTC 2010 Horizontal Merger Guidelines makes clear that competition may be harmed if a merger reduces the merged firm’s incentives to innovate:

The Agencies may consider whether a merger is likely to diminish innovation competition by encouraging the merged firm to curtail its innovative efforts below the level that would prevail in the absence of the merger.

Alleging harm to innovation is a well-accepted theory and many DOJ and the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) complaints have alleged technology mergers will reduce incentives to innovate. For example, in U.S. v. Bazaarvoice, a litigated case involving the consummated merger of the two leading ratings and review platforms, the DOJ introduced substantial evidence that competition between the parties was the primary driver of innovation in the market. In another recent DOJ case, the proposed acquisition of Tokyo Electron by Applied Materials, the parties abandoned the merger when they were unable to address the DOJ’s innovation concerns. Similarly, the FTC has challenged mergers to protect innovation in high-tech markets. For example, in Nielsen/Arbitron, the FTC required divestitures to protect future competition in the market for cross-platform audience-measurement services and in NXP/Freescale the FTC required divestitures to protect future competition in the semiconductor industry. FTC Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen explained the importance of innovation in the review of high-tech mergers:

Higher prices are obviously a fundamental concern in reviewing mergers of close competitors. The loss of competition to innovate and to develop better, faster, more efficient products, however can be just as concerning – particularly in the technology area, where essential competition often is not on price, but rather on product features.

Assessing Harm to Innovation

Most of these enforcement actions were resolved by consent where the agencies did not go into detail regarding the evidence considered and the analytic tools used to assess harm to innovation. In Bazaarvoice, the one litigated case, DOJ alleged harm to innovation along with effects on price and quality. DOJ did not ask, and the court did not find, that harm to innovation was a separate and independent basis to find the merger substantially reduced competition in the ratings and review market.

The Sabre complaint alleges two separate and distinct theories of competitive harm: (i) higher prices due to the elimination of head-to-head competition between Sabre and Farelogix, and (ii) reduced incentives to invest and innovate next-generation technology. The structure of the Sabre complaint and the extensive references to innovation competition suggests that DOJ may ask the court to make a separate finding that the merger should be blocked based on an innovation theory of harm.

The DOJ’s focus on innovation effects is likely a response to criticism that the agencies have placed excessive focus on price effects and failed to intervene when dominant firms acquire smaller, disruptive competitors. DOJ may seek to use the Sabre case to put harm to innovation on equal footing with price effects. Discovering whether DOJ intends to allege harm to innovation as a separate and independent basis to block the merger will have to wait until DOJ files its pretrial brief and presents expert and other testimony at trial. But if this is DOJ’s intention, the trial may very well answer some open questions about how the agencies approach the elimination of small, innovative competitors. For example, will DOJ articulate a clear standard for blocking a dominant firm’s acquisition of a smaller, innovative competitor? Even if Farelogix has been an aggressive and innovative competitor, will DOJ be able to prove Farelogix is uniquely positioned to push the airline booking industry forward? Expect Sabre to offer evidence that the GDSs have been a source of innovation and that there are many other similarly situated competitors that can match Farelogix’s NDC technology. Will DOJ be able to prove how Farelogix would have developed without the merger? Expect Sabre to argue that Farelogix is a weak competitor that does not have the resources to implement NDC technology at scale. What weight will DOJ give to any integration efficiencies of combining Sabre’s and Farelogix’s respective technologies? Expect Sabre to argue that the merger will lead to better products that will enhance, rather than stifle, innovation. Finally, what, if any, economic tools will DOJ use to measure any potential reduction in innovation in the airline booking market?