Decision on Ryanair probe put back until early January
Published 20/12/2010 | 05:00
Ryanair will have to wait until the new year for a decision from the UK's Office of Fair Trading (OFT) as to whether it believes a probe into the carrier's near 30pc stake in Aer Lingus is necessary, amid competition concerns.
The OFT, which is headed by former boss of the Irish Competition Authority John Fingleton, announced in October that it had initiated a merger investigation over Ryanair's holding in Aer Lingus to determine whether the airline has exerted "material influence" over the former state-owned carrier's strategy, and if the stake building has led to a substantial lessening of competition.
The OFT had been due to announce by Christmas Eve whether it would refer the case to the UK's Competition Commission for a full-blown investigation.
However, a spokesman for the OFT told the Irish Independent that the decision date has been put back to the new year. He declined to give a reason for the delay. It's likely that the OFT will reveal its decision some time in early January.
But even if the OFT wants to refer the case to the Competition Commission, it will find it difficult to do so. The OFT has conceded it has to first examine whether it remains within the statutory time period necessary to launch the probe.
Typically, the OFT has a four-month window from when an event occurs to trigger an investigation. Ryanair main-tains that since it made its first hostile move against Aer Lingus in 2006, the OFT is out of time on the issue. Independent competition lawyers in the UK have also queried how the OFT could overcome the time limit.
Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary said the OFT should not be able to proceed.
"We think they're clearly out of time for this investigation," he said. "We've sent in our submission and I think it's conclusive. It's absurd to think they can come back four years after the first takeover attempt and say they think there's a basis for investigating."
The European Commission blocked the initial takeover attempt of Aer Lingus by Ryanair, but the European Court of Justice said earlier this year it couldn't overturn a previous decision by the commission that Ryanair couldn't be forced to sell its stake in Aer Lingus.
Aer Lingus has previously welcomed the OFT decision to examine Ryanair's stake.