View from the Jump Seat: the SAA/Mango Merger

By Mitchell Brooks, AAT guest author

The recent proposal of a SAA/Mango/Express merger has sparked debate throughout the aviation industry. A good friend of mine has gained incredible experience in the private jet charter industry based in London, but more importantly, he also doubles as keen aviation blogger. And so, it only felt right to join the debate, as a team. What you are about to read is a merger between two SAFFAS with a passion for aviation. – A big thanks to Nick Combes (from The Aisle View)Flugsimulator_DASA_Dortmund

In late 2016 it was announced that SAA, SA Express and Mango airlines would undergo a merger. The merger is said to be overseen by an American 3rd party organisation, Bain & Co, a management consultant firm. The reported fee agreed for Bain’s oversee was in the region of R12 million.

From an operational aspect, Mango is already operating under SAA’s AOC (Air Operating Certificate) and its fleet is maintained by SAA’s technical department. This means that no real change would be felt across airline operations, however as discussed below, the legal structure of its fleet changes quite drastically.

When looking at the structures of these airline companies, one can become quite skeptical of the underlying rationale for the proposed merger between SAA and Mango. Mango is a 100% subsidiary of SAA, meaning that SAA holds the entirety of Mango’s shares. The financial integration should be straight forward. But it is the restructuring of the company that interests us.

With that said, SAA does not stand to reap profits greater than the existing dividends it already receives. I am no tax expert but, if anything, SAA may be attempting to avoid dividends tax of up to 20% by becoming one single entity.

But it is admittedly difficult to see why a state-owned entity would take on the cost of this merger, simply to avoid the same tax that it enjoys the benefit of!

For those even remotely aware of South African Airways’ financial history, you will remember that the state airline has already been rescued by various state bail outs (thanks, taxpayer). South African Airways still reported a 2015 loss of R5.6 billion or $485 million. Mango is currently the only profitable subsidiary of the 3 merging companies. (It has done well to remain so against the might of Comair’s low-cost subsidiary, Kulula.)

The merger proposes a streamlining of SAA as a parent company to maximise profitability. But if Mango is doing well shouldn’t they be left alone to continue just this? If the SAA board cannot return a flagship carrier to profitability, then taking on another two airlines is not going to make their jobs any easier. Adding two bad eggs with one good egg still makes a horrible pancake.

Mango’s relatively small yet successful operation is not going to be offering any lifelines for SAA parent. SAA is a sinking ship that ultimately threatens to pull Mango down with it.

So what really is the motive for this merger?

Let us back track to the restructuring of the boards of the entities and simplify things. As it stands, an unsuccessful SAA has a board of directors, with its highly criticised Dudu Myeni as its chair. On the other hand, a successful subsidiary, Mango, has its own independent board of directors. What should be noted is that, notwithstanding the MOI of the Companies, the Companies Act 71 of 2008 requires the shareholders of a company to elect a minimum of 50% of the board. This means that the SAA parent already has the power to appoint the majority of its subsidiary’s board.

Based on the endless corruption allegations and financial shortfalls of SAA, is it not plausible that the proposed merger serves the purpose to concentrate power towards one individual, whose purpose to date has clearly not been the success of a company, the chairperson – Dudu Myeni.

Another prominently possible reason for the merger would be to restructure the ownership of the fleet. One may then ask, why? Well SAA has found itself being investigated by the Competition Commission quite often, in fact, state entities are the most frequent transgressors of the Act which has caused quite a lot of speculation surrounding its possible amendment to relieve state entities altogether. Furthermore, our President did hint towards this amendment at SONA 2017, which indicates that there is certainly an intention for the state to relieve itself from this Act to some degree.

This may seem quite deceptive, as the merging of the entities may be for the purpose of avoiding the red tape surrounding the Competition Act. In June 2016 SAA conceded to sub-chartering aircraft to SAA at discounted rates. In fact, the SAFAIR CEO indicated that SAA would have been subsidising almost 40 percent of Mango’s costs through the arrangement.

Of course, such an arrangement drew attention from Mangos biggest rival Kulula, who laid a complaint to the competition commission on grounds of collusion. Unfortunately, the channel chosen by Kulula was slightly flawed and perhaps would have been better suited under a predatory pricing argument.

Firstly, the problem with pursuing the horizontal collusion argument is that the relationship between SAA and Mango is distinctively more vertical than horizontal because, as mentioned earlier, SAA amounts to a supplier of aircraft to its 100% wholly owned subsidiary. It would be quite difficult to argue that SAA competes with its sub in the domestic, low-cost airline market. Arguably, that is where the collusive approach falls flat. A more reasonable approach would be to argue that SAA was abusing its dominance in the domestic airline market, gained by means of historical state funding, by sub-chartering aircraft (a service) to its subsidiary at prices below their marginal or average variable cost. Furthermore, the only intention that can reasonably be inferred from this arrangement is that SAA, and by implication Mango, sought to remove Kulula from the market – hence the term predatory pricing. Think about it, why else would a bleeding parent company sublease aircraft, at a loss, to a succeeding sub?

The point is if Mango and SAA become one entity they no longer need to formally lease aircraft between each other, meaning that Mango benefits from the use of the aircraft at low costs which allows it to undercut Kulula and squeeze their margins, eventually squeezing them out of the low-cost market. The biggest effect of the restructuring is that without a leasing arrangement the Competition Act is circumvented. However, the merger will have to pass the muster of the Competition Tribunal in order to merge and I am quite hopeful that the merger will be rejected on the grounds that it would lead to extremely anti-competitive consequences in an already struggling market. One could say the merging parties have exceeded their maximum take-off weight (“MTOW”), and even if cleared would unlikely reach their VR speed “rotation speed.”

Ultimately, there are only two parties that may benefit from this merger, Dudu Myeni and allegedly a number of SAA pilots. An anonymous insider has suggested that currently, the policies within the two companies are different in regulating the years of experience required to jump over to the left seat, with the SAA policy requiring over a decade. The question arises as to whether SAA pilots may demand a threshold more akin to their orange comrades.

Cabin-crew, disarm doors and cross-check”

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South African Airways (SAA) to pay $80 million in civil damages to competitor Comair for abuse of dominance

-by Michael-James Currie

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A second civil damages award was recently imposed on South Africa’s national airline carrier, SAA, following on from the Competition Tribunal’s finding that SAA had engaged in an abuse of dominance.   The award in favour of Comair, comes after the first ever successful follow-on civil damages claim in South Africa (as a result of competition law violation) which related to Nationwide’s civil claim against SAA.  In the Nationwide matter, the High Court awarded , (in August 2016) damages to Nationwide in the amount of R325 million.   Comair claim for damages was based on the same cause of action as Nationwide’s claim. The High Court, however, awarded damages in favour of Comair of R554 million plus interest bring the total award to over a R1 billion (or about US$ 80 million).

Both damages cases entailed lengthy proceedings as Nationwide (and subsequently Comair) launched complaints, in respect of SAA’s abuse of dominance, to the South African Competition Commission as far back as 2003. Importantly, in terms of South Africa’s legislative framework, a complainant may only institute a civil damages claim based on a breach of the South African Competition Act if there has been an adverse finding either by the Competition Tribunal or the Competition Appeal Court.

The outcome of the High Court case is significant as the combined civil damages (both Nationwide’s and Comair’s) together with the administrative penalties imposed by the Competition Tribunal (in 2006) amounts total liability for SA is in excess of R1.5 billion.

Says John Oxenham, “Although the South African competition regime has been in place for more than 16 years and there have been a number of adverse findings against respondents by the competition authorities, have only been a limited number of civil follow-on damages cases.” This is largely due to the substantial difficulties (or perceived difficulties) a plaintiff faces in trying to quantify the damages, he believes. Follow-on damages claims for breaches of competition legislation are notoriously difficult to prove not only in South Africa but in most jurisdictions.

The recent Nationwide and Comair judgments, however, may pave the way and provide some important guidance to potential plaintiffs who are contemplating pursuing civil redress against firms which have engaged in anti-competitive conduct (including cartel conduct).

In this regard, the South African National Roads Agency (SANRAL) announced last year that it has also instituted a civil damages claim of approximately R700 million against a number of construction firms who had had been found by the Competition Authorities to have engaged in cartel conduct.  The SANRAL case will be the first damages claim, if successful, by a ‘customer’ against a respondent who has contravened the Competition Act in relation to cartel conduct (and not abuse of dominance as in the SAA case).

saaplaceThe only previous civil damages claim was in the form of a class action instituted by bread distributors and consumers in relation to cartel conduct involving plant bakeries. Although the class was ultimately successful in their certification application, the case provides no further guidance as to the quantification of damages as the respective parties have either settled their case or remain in settlement negotiations.

As the development of civil redress in South Africa develops in relation to cartel conduct, it will be particularly interesting to evaluate what the effect of civil damages may have on the Competition Commission’s Corporate Leniency Policy. The Commission’s leniency policy only offers immunity to a respondent who is “first through the door” from an administrative penalty. It does not extend immunity to a whistle-blower for civil damages or criminal liability. It is well understood that the Corporate Leniency Policy has been one of the Commission’s most effective mechanisms in identifying and successfully prosecuting firms which have engaged in cartel conduct.

In relation to the recent civil damages cases, John Oxenham, a Primerio director, notes that “Parties will have to strike a delicate balance whether to approach the Competition Commission for purposes of obtaining immunity from an administrative penalty, which is no doubt made all the more difficult following the R1.5 billion administrative penalty levied on ArcelorMittal in 2016 (the largest administrative penalty imposed in South Africa to date) will no doubt be of some import given that most of the conduct related to cartel conduct“.

Accordingly, in light of the introduction of criminal liability as of May 2016, the imposition of record administrative penalties, the risk substantial follow-on civil damages and the development of class action litigation, South Africa is now evermore a rather treacherous terrain for firms and their directors.

Criminal Antitrust: South Africa begins to enforce felony provisions

Price-fixers face up to 10 years prison time, starting May 1st

Prison time for executives is now firmly on the not-so-distant horizon in South Africa: As reported in some media outlets, the criminalisation of certain hard-core (and possibly lesser) antitrust offences is finally being implemented in the Republic — notably after more than 8 years of the relevant legislation technically being on the books.

white collar crimeWe are referring to the “phased” implementation of the 2009 Competition Amendment Act.  The legislation technically criminalised hard-core antitrust offences such as bid-rigging or price-fixing cartels.  However, President Zuma has, until now, not yet implemented or effectively signed the criminal provision of the Act (section 73A) into law.

Enter his Economic Development Minister, Ebrahim Patel:

Patel signature on 73AAccording to news reports, Mr. Patel announced today (Thursday), that the criminalisation of the price-fixing cartel offence would henceforth be enforced.  Section 73A will be gazetted tomorrow, 22 April 2016, and hold the force of law from 1 May 2016.  BDLive also reports that even the lesser “abuse of dominance” (or more commonly “monopolisation”) offence would be subject to the criminal penalties, but AAT is awaiting independent confirmation on this subject.  As Andreas Stargard, a U.S.-based Pr1merio antitrust practitioner with a focus on Africa and experience counseling clients in criminal competition matters, explains:

“If Mr. Patel indeed made this statement, and I doubt this, it would signal a departure from the rest of the world’s antitrust regimes: It is highly uncommon to have the monopolisation offence constitute a criminal act — indeed I am aware of no jurisdiction where this is the case.

In the United States, the only conduct constituting a Sherman Act offence pursued by the DOJ as a potential felony involve so-called ‘hard-core’ violations.  This would include horizontal price-fixing among competitors; territorial allocations; output allocations; and bid-rigging.  The same holds true in the UK.  That said, monopolisation or abuse of dominance is simply not among the criminalised antitrust violations elsewhere, and I’d be surprised if South Africa took this unusual path.

We have since been able to confirm that the BDLive report incorrectly refers to abuse of dominance as being criminalised.  AAT has obtained a copy of Mr Patel’s speech which provides clearly only for cartel conduct to be subjected to imprisonment:

“We are confident that because our work on cartels over the past five years has given clarity in the market on what collusion entails and what kind of acts falls within prohibited practices, we can now step up our efforts to the next level in our endeavor to combat corruption, cartels and anti-competitive conduct that raise prices and keep businesses and new entrants out of local markets.

Accordingly, government will tomorrow gazette a Presidential Proclamation that brings into effect certain sections of the Competition Amendment Act, with effect from 1 May 2016, which make it a criminal offence for directors or managers of a firm to collude with their competitors to fix prices, divide markets among themselves or collude in tenders or to acquiesce in collusion and they expose themselves to time in jail if convicted.”

The Patel announcements come ahead of his upcoming budget vote speech, and as he has shown in recent months, Mr. Patel is a proud advocate for tougher competition enforcement in the country.  “We want to make sure that it just does not make sense to collude,” he is reported as saying today.  This follows the Minister’s speech during the Parliament debate in February, where he announced that, “we will now introduce measures shortly to make it a criminal offence in any industry to collude and fix-prices. It will send a message to everyone that we mean business on stamping out corruption and collusion. We must build competitive strengths through innovation, not through sitting in rooms somewhere fixing tenders, prices and contracts.”

White-collar crime: it pays, but is getting riskier

white collar crime 2We live in the era of the Panama Papers, where the notion of white-collar business people going to jail is not an entirely unlikely outcome for some.  Antitrust offences, however, have historically not been enforced worldwide as stringently as public corruption or tax-evasion matters, for instance.  Key jurisdictions with criminalisation of competition offences remain few, notably the U.S. and the UK.

In South Africa, since at least 2014, both Competition Commissioner Tembinkosi Bonakele and Minister Patel have been engaging in discussions on how and when to implement the Act “to ensure that the necessary institutional capacity is available to apply the [criminal] amendments.”  While some provisions (relating to the agency’s market-inquiry powers) went into effect in 2013, the criminalisation provisions remain unimplemented to date — but this is about to change.

During these negotiations, as reported on AAT, the minister and SACC admitted in a remarkable self-assessment that the Commission then lacked “the institutional capacity needed to comply with the higher burden of proof in criminal cases.”  One notable aspect of potential discord lies in not only in the different standard of proof in civil vs. criminal matters (“more probable than not” vs. “beyond a reasonable doubt”), but perhaps more importantly can be found on the procedural side, preventing rapid implementation of the law: There has been historic friction between various elements of the RSA’s police forces and (special) prosecutorial services, and the power to prosecute crimes notably remains within the hands of the National Prosecuting Authority, supported in its investigations by the South African Police Service.

History & Legislative Background – and a bit of Advice from the U.S.

Starting in the spring and summer of 2008, the rumoured legislative clamp-down on corrupt & anti-competitive business practices by the government made the RSA business papers’ headlines.

During a presentation Mr. Stargard gave at a Johannesburg conference in September that year (“Criminalising Competition Law: A New Era of ‘Antitrust with Teeth’ in South Africa? Lessons Learned from the U.S. Perspective“), he quoted a few highlights among them, such as “Competition Bill to Pave Way for Criminal Liability”, “Tough on directors”, “Criminalisation of directors by far most controversial”, “Bosses Must Pay Fines Themselves”, “Likely to give rise to constitutional challenges”, and “Disqualification from directorships … very career limiting”.

Stargard, whose practice includes criminal and civil antitrust work, having represented South African Airways in the global “Air Cargo Cartel” investigations, also notes that  international best-practice recommendations all highlight the positive effect of criminal antitrust penalties. For example, the OECD’s Hard-Core Cartel Report recommended that governments consider the introduction and imposition of criminal antitrust sanctions against individuals to enhance deterrence and incentives to cooperate through leniency programmes.  Then-DOJ antitrust chief  Tom Barnett said in 2008, the year South Africa introduced its legislation: “Jail time creates the most effective, necessary deterrent. … [N]othing in our enforcement arsenal has as great a deterrent as the threat of substantial jail time in a United States prison, either as a result of a criminal trial or a guilty plea.”

Mr. Stargard points out the following recommendations to serve as guide-posts for the Commission going forward in its “new era” of criminal enforcement:

Cornerstones of a successful criminal antitrust regime

  • Crystal-clear demarcation of criminal vs. civil conduct
  • Highly effective leniency policy also applies to individuals
  • Standard of proof must be met beyond a reasonable doubt
  • No blanket liability for negligent directors – only actors liable
  • Plea bargaining to be used as an effective tool to reduce sentence
  • Clear pronouncements by enforcement agency to help counsel predict outcomes

Demarcation of criminal vs civil antitrust conduct in U.S.

What lies ahead?

After 1 May, the penalties for violating Section 73A of the Competition Amendment Act will range from a period of up to 10 years in prison and/or a fine of up to R500 000.00.  It appears that the introduction of criminal provisions will not have a retrospective effect, but will only apply prospectively from 1 May 2016 onward.

robber barons

Robber barons…

The introduction of criminal sanctions for cartel conduct raise several constitutional concerns. It is likely that, in the event of the imposition of criminal sanctions, the constitutional validity of the relevant Competition Amendment Act provisions will be challenged. In particular, section 73A(5) of the Amendment Act, introduces a reverse onus on the accused, in that the onus for rebutting the Competition Tribunal of Competition Appeal Court’s conclusion rests with the accused in criminal proceedings. The reverse onus’ constitutional validity is questionable given the constitutional right to a fair trial and the right to be presumed innocent.

John Oxenham, also with Pr1merio, notes that the “criminalisation of cartel conduct is a development which needs to be carefully considered and well planned before its official introduction due to the imminent effects it will have on current South African competition law.” The successful prosecution of cartel conduct rests heavily on the efficiency of corporate leniency policies. The introduction of criminal sanctions and in turn the National Prosecuting Authority will undoubtedly have an effect on the current corporate leniency policies. It is important to consider granting the staff of a company applying for corporate leniency in relation to cartel activity ‘full immunity’ from criminal prosecution in order to encourage companies to come forward and not debilitate the very purpose of corporate leniency policies. The careful integration of criminal sanctions is therefore vital in ensuring that the very purpose of its introduction, namely to deter corruption and anti-competitive conduct, is achieved.

Update [22 April 2016]: As anticipated, the South African government gazetted [published] the official document starting the era of criminal antitrust enforcement under section 73A as of today, signed 18 April 2016:

gazette 73A.jpg