independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

John Mulligan: Still a good few cards left to play in this drawn-out tale of two airlines

Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary

IT was never going to be easy for Ryanair to pull a rabbit out of the hat.

When it launched its third bid for Aer Lingus last summer, few commentators gave it much chance of succeeding.

But Ryanair played a very different ball game this time around. Its last two takeover attempts had been marked by frequent and open hostility towards Aer Lingus. And Former management at Aer Lingus didn't shy away from unflattering commentary.

A cartoon in a booklet produced by Aer Lingus at the time of Ryanair's second offer depicts Michael O'Leary spouting flames of hot air from his rear.

This time around, Ryanair and Aer Lingus did it mostly by the book. Ryanair kept returning to Brussels with solutions to issues the European Commission raised regarding its planned takeover. Increasingly, it looked like Brussels was being painted into a corner and that denying Ryanair this time around might be difficult.

Even Willie Walsh, the former Aer Lingus boss who now heads up British Airways and Iberia owner IAG, told an audience in Dublin at the weekend that he believed Ryanair had a better than 50-50 chance of securing the green light from Brussels.

Ryanair said yesterday that it had addressed every single issue the EC had put to it. It claimed a decision to block the takeover would be "manifestly unfair and in contravention of EU competition laws".

But it was not to be. Ryanair complained that it's being held "to a much higher standard" than any other EU airline by the Commission.

Now it's down to the lawyers.

And while Michael O'Leary and his board now have to decide what to do with the Aer Lingus stake, matters could be taken out of their hands.

The UK Competition Commission has been probing Ryanair's holding in Aer Lingus to determine whether it exerts undue influence over its smaller rival.

Ryanair denies it, but if the UK authority rules against it, it could force Ryanair to sell some or all of its Aer Lingus shares.

The Government too is still planning to sell its own 25.1pc stake in Aer Lingus.

Despite the EU blocking the latest bid, this saga has much more left to run.

Irish Independent

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