Australia: Flight Centre wins on appeal as Full Court overturns price fixing findings

Last Updated: 15 October 2015
Article by David Grace

The Full Court of the Federal Court has upheld an appeal by Flight Centre against findings that it attempted to induce price fixing arrangements, and ordered that the penalty of $11 million be set aside.

The facts

Flight Centre acted as agent for three international airlines in distributing air travel services. These airlines also distributed their air travel services through other travel agents and directly to customers through their own marketing.

On occasion, the relevant airlines would offer special discounted fares for sale on their website only. Flight Centre became concerned that the airlines were offering lower air fares through their own websites than Flight Centre could offer and as such Flight Centre would lose their ability to draw customer traffic to their service.

Between 2005 and 2009, representatives of Flight Centre sent numerous emails to the relevant airlines requesting that any fare the airlines directly offered to customers would also be made available to purchase through Flight Centre. Flight Centre also sought to have the airlines agree that any fare sold by the airlines directly be sold at a total price that included the amount of commission Flight Centre would be entitled to if it had sold the fare.

In a number of these emails, Flight Centre also threatened the airlines that, if the price undercutting did not stop, Flight Centre might choose not to promote and distribute the airlines' air travel to its customers.

The ACCC alleged that this conduct constituted attempted price fixing arrangements in contravention of section 45 of the Competition and Consumer Act (CCA).

First instance decision

In order to fall within the meaning of price fixing, the proposed arrangements had to relate to services supplied by both Flight Centre and the airlines and these two had to be in competition with each other.

At first instance, Justice Rangiah found that Flight Centre was in fact in competition with the airlines for the supply of distribution and booking services in relation to international passenger air travel.

Appeal decision

The Full Court found that that Justice Rangiah was wrong in finding that there was a separate market for booking and distribution services to consumers. The Full Court found that Justice Rangiah's market analysis was artificial and failed to consider the commercial reality of the relationships and dealings of the parties.

The first problem with Justice Rangian's analysis was that airlines could only supply distribution services in relation to their own flights. They could not sensibly be treated as competing with each other in relation to the supply of distribution services generally. There was no single booking services market in which all of the airlines and travel agents competed.

The second and more fundamental problem was that services such as booking and ticketing were an ancillary part of the supply of international travel, which Flight Centre supplied on behalf of the airlines under agency agreements. As such, Flight Centre did not supply the services itself. Because the relationships were that of agent and principal, there could be no competition between Flight Centre and the airlines.

However, the Full Court cautioned that the mere existence of an agency agreement does not always mean two parties are not in competition with each other. There are a broad range of commercial relationships that are sometimes referred to as involving agency. Each case must be considered on its own facts, with the question of competition relying heavily on the defining of the relevant market.

Implications for agency and distribution agreements

The case has helped clarify the law on price fixing for any agent which offers and sells services similar to those offered direct to consumers by its principal.

Importantly, the Full Court indicated that if in reality the agent is no more than a distributor or re-seller of the manufacturer's product, there may well be competition in relation to the supply of the product. The question of whether a manufacturer and its distributors, resellers and agents are supplying products in competition with each other in the same market must be answered by reference to commercial reality.

This case also highlights the difficulties faced when determining the correct characterisation of a market for the purposes of the cartel provisions. It is clear that the definition of the market is subject to subjective assumptions and views, which allows for the creation of multiple definitions of the potentially relevant market. This leads to uncertainty for those parties operating within such markets, as to where competition may arise between market players. As reiterated by the Full Court in this decision, the best option to create certainty when considering whether a party is competing in the same market for the purposes of the cartel provisions is to base market definitions on:

  • a careful evaluation of the evidence concerning the nature and character of the relevant goods or services;
  • the circumstances in which they were supplied or acquired; and
  • the interactions between, and the perceptions of, the relevant suppliers and acquirers of the product.

If you have any questions in relation to the operation of the cartel provisions under the CCA or the implications of this case on your business or distribution agreements, please contact us.

Winner – EOWA Employer of Choice for Women Citation 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012
Winner – ALB Gold Employer of Choice 2011 and 2012
Finalist – ALB Australasian Law Awards 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2012 (Best Brisbane Firm)
Winner – BRW Client Choice Awards 2009 and 2010 - Best Australian Law Firm (revenue less than $50m)

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
 
Some comments from our readers…
“The articles are extremely timely and highly applicable”
“I often find critical information not available elsewhere”
“As in-house counsel, Mondaq’s service is of great value”

Mondaq Advice Centre (MACs)
Up-coming Events Search
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
 
Email Address
Company Name
Password
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Accounting
 Anti-trust
 Commercial
 Consumer
 Criminal
 Employment
 Energy
 Environment
 Family
 Finance
 Government
 Healthcare
 Immigration
 Insolvency
 Insurance
 International
 IP
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Litigation
 Media & IT
 Privacy
 Real Estate
 Strategy
 Tax
 Technology
 Transport
 Wealth Mgt
Regions
Africa
Asia
Asia Pacific
Australasia
Canada
Caribbean
Europe
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
U.K.
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of www.mondaq.com

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about Mondaq.com’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.

Disclaimer

Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.

Registration

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to unsubscribe@mondaq.com with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.

Cookies

A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.

Links

This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.

Mail-A-Friend

If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.

Security

This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to webmaster@mondaq.com.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to EditorialAdvisor@mondaq.com.

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at enquiries@mondaq.com.

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at problems@mondaq.com and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.