gavel.jpgThe chief executive officers of United Airlines and Continental Airlines are expected to testify in federal court in San Francisco today in a hearing on a lawsuit that seeks to block a merger of the two companies.

Today was the start of a two- or three-day hearing before U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg on a bid by 49 passengers from 15 states for a preliminary injunction blocking the merger.

The planned merger, announced in May, would create the world’s largest airline in terms of revenue-producing passenger miles.

The 49 plaintiffs, represented by San Francisco antitrust lawyer Joseph M. Alioto, claim the merger will reduce competition and result in increased prices and decreased service.

The two airlines contend the merger will benefit consumers by increasing efficiency and improving connections.

Airline attorney Katherine Forrest told Seeborg during an opening statement, “The evidence is that consumer choice is going to dramatically increase as a result of this merger.”

The first witness in the hearing, due to begin testifying shortly before noon, was to be Jeff Smisek, CEO of Houston-based Continental. He was scheduled to be followed on the stand by Glenn Tilton, CEO of Chicago-based United.

The merger plan was given a boost when the U.S. Justice Department on Friday announced that antitrust regulators found no problems with the plan.

But Seeborg noted at the start of the hearing that he is not bound by the Justice Department’s conclusion, although he may take it into consideration.

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