A Legal High? Apparently Not.

A Legal High? Apparently Not.

Sunday 5 July 2015 - Ammar Thair

For a decidedly difficult decade, Ryanair has been locked in a legal battle with the struggling Airbus operator, Aer Lingus. The issue dates back to the 27th September 2006, when Aer Lingus floated on the stock exchange at around €2.20, shortly after which Ryanair began to acquire shares in the business. In the following month, Ryanair launched a €1.48 billion bid at €2.80 a share to buy the entirety of Aer Lingus. In January of 2007 however, the eyes of the European Commission shone down, confirming that it was blocking Ryanair’s proposed takeover on the grounds of anti-competition.

What followed was the beginning of a series of court disputes to determine whether competition rules under the EU Merger Regulation had in fact been breached, and to compound the Irish giant’s problems, the Office for Fair Trading soon began to investigate Ryanair’s stake in Aer Lingus. Clearly, the Airliner’s plans would not be getting off the ground anytime soon. The issue primarily relates to the fact that if Ryanair were to gain control of its Irish rival, then, as Dr. Ping Wang has told us in our E.U lectures, the prospect of a monopoly or cartel is essentially upon us, if not in terms of price, then general competition at the least. For instance, at Dublin airport Ryanair and Aer Lingus are the two main operators, thus if a takeover were to occur, there is a real chance that it could lead to the “elimination of actual and potential competition, on a large number of [its] routes”, as was specifically argued by the European Commission.

The result of this finding was that the European Commission originally proposed in 2007 to block the initial takeover bid. However, the Commission decided later that year that Ryanair’s stake in the company- then sitting at 29%, having risen from 25%- did not breach competition rules under the Regulation. Aer Lingus immediately challenged the decision. In the meantime, Ryanair abandoned a second takeover bid, when informed that the Irish Government would not lend its support. From 2011 to 2013, the Competition Appeal Tribunal ruled against Ryanair, which was later appealed, then Ryanair made a third takeover offer, which, once again, was blocked by the European Commission.

One could be forgiven for suggesting the situation to be rather comic in nature, with the CEO of Ryanair, Michael O’Leary, commenting in January of 2013 that the row was like a Monty Python script. Unfortunately for him, what came was not ‘a flesh wound’, but rather a debilitating saga, crippling his plans for his rival and ever-resistant counterpart, Aer Lingus. Perhaps the greatest analogy is that of ‘a gangrenous limb that needed to be severed from the organism and tossed away’, provided of course by the fictitious but spectacular Professor Sheldon Cooper.

However, after all of this turbulence, an unexpected sting in the tail for Ryanair arrived in that after 8 years into this saga, the owner of British Airways, IAGA, flew into the mix and confirmed its approach to acquire Aer Lingus. Given that Aer Lingus had rejected IAG’s intial two offers, the potential of humiliation for Ryanair has only just resurfaced with the confirmation of takeover talks being opened between Aer Lingus and IAG, after a third offer of €2.50 a share on the 25th January 2015 being received, with the conduction of said talks still being underway.

Meanwhile, with regards to Ryanair’s stake in Aer Lingus, on the 12th February 2015 Aer Lingus had won the latest decision at the Court of Appeal, forcing Ryanair to sell down its stake in the company, from 28.5% to a mere 5%. Thus, it appears the saga is at an end. It appears that Ryanair has been not only denied a seat at the head of the table, but rather is to be pushed out of its existing seat, straight through the cabin door. After all, this was its ninth successive court defeat, and some are even pushing for Ryanair to forego its stake in Aer Lingus entirely. Alas, however, in a soap opera that refuses to roll its end credits, it appears that the gate has not yet closed, and Ryanair is determined to challenge the latest ruling to decrease its stake on human rights grounds.

So in short, now we have a situation where Ryanair will either be forced to reduce its stake in Aer Lingus, or be successful in its relentless attempts to remain and potentially expand within a company, that clearly no longer wants anything to do with it. One must wonder, is this really the final call? Well, as has been the case for the past 9 years and counting, we shall simply have to wait and see as to whether Ryanair’s plans have been cancelled indefinitely, or simply delayed for take-off.

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Author: Ammar Thair