Airlines seek antitrust exemption: KQ-CAK application pending

Kenya Airways (“KQ”) has applied to the Competition Authority of Kenya  (“the Competition Authority”) for an exemption from competition rules in relation to its joint venture agreement with Tanzania’s national carrier, Precision Air (“the Joint Venture”) until April 2022.  The exemption would allow KQ and Precision Air to discuss revenue sharing, price setting, route schedules, sales and marketing on the two airline’s joint venture routes in Kenya and Tanzania.  The routes in discussion are Nairobi, Mombasa, and Kisumu, Dar-es-salaam, Kilimanjaro and Zanzibar.

Most importantly, the exemption, if granted, would allow for the setting of prices between the two companies, which can be considered “price fixing” but without violating the Kenyan Competition Act, which defines restrictive trade practices as “any agreement, decision or concerted practice which directly or indirectly fixes purchase or selling prices or any other trading conditions”.

The two carriers already have a code-sharing agreement that allows airlines to sell seats on each other’s planes on the Nairobi-Dar es Salaam route.

According to the director-general of the Competition Authority the parties intend to align and coordinate network management activities with respect to the Joint Venture including terms of routes, schedules, capacity and designation and pricing of ticket fares on the joint venture routes.

The two airlines are also seeking exemption of competition rules in the management of any and all revenues attributable to the performance of the joint venture by any party, “…including without limit, setting up joint venues management systems and joint venue analysis systems; and joint marketing and sales activities with respect to joint venture”.

John Oxenham, a competition attorney with Primerio Ltd., notes that “[t]here is certainly a growing number of exemption applications filed before the Competition Authority of Kenya. This is attributed largely to an increase in awareness of competition enforcement in Kenya and also due to an increase in the number of ‘tie-ups’ between competitors or potential competitors entering into the Kenya market.”

His fellow Kenyan antitrust colleague, Ruth Mosoti, who previously worked as legal advisor to the CAK, confirms: “The CAK conducts a robust assessment in respect of any exemption application and does not grant these as a matter of course. The CAK has rejected a number of exemption applications in the past and therefore any such application should be supported with credible and quantifiable evidence in support of the exemption application. The most recent exemption applications which have been rejected by the CAK have invariably been brought by Trade Associations or Professional Bodies and the exemption would therefore apply across the entire industry as opposed to only specific firms within a given sector.”

“Exemptions may only be granted on the basis of certain narrow grounds as set out in the Act. In summary, exemptions may be granted on the basis that it will promote (or maintain) exports, benefit a declining industry or promote technical or economic progress in a particular industry.  Accordingly, an exemption which would generally lead to ‘pro-competitive’ effects must be based or fit into one of these grounds. An exemption may also be granted if the public interest benefit in granting the exemption outweighs any potential anticompetitive effect,” says Oxenham.

Ms. Mosoti notes that the Competition Authority has given the public 30 days to submit opinions on the proposal, as is common and required under the rules. The pro-competitive benefits to the public may ultimately outweigh the CAK’s concerns here: “It is not uncommon for Airlines to apply for exemptions particularly if the parties are considering or embarking on flight or code sharing arrangements. By increasing the passenger numbers, Airlines may be able to offer additional routes, decrease costs of tickets and/or offer a more convenient travel experience.”

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