Competition Commission of India (CCI): “Cartelisation in the Airlines Industry”? Coram of Ashok Kumar Gupta (Chairperson) and Sangeeta Verma and Bhagwant Singh Bishnoi, Members, addressed a very significant matter and analysed a detailed report of the Director-General pertaining to the same.
Cartelization: Domestic Airlines
The present matter revolved around the allegation with regard to cartelization amongst various domestic airlines operating in India in contravention of Section 3(1) of the Competition Act read with Section 3(3).
The above concern arose on receiving a letter from Lok Sabha Secretariat with a request to examine whether there was any evidence of cartelization in the airlines sector.
Conduct of airlines was analysed with the help of data pertaining to four major routes, which indicated that airlines maintained some degree of stability in their market shares in both lean and peak seasons during the examined period.
Similar cost structure was observed to facilitate the collusion on price to be charged in contrast to a differentiated cost structure, where low-cost firms usually compete with high cost firms on prices to capture greater market share.
A significant observation was that despite differences in various other fares, the end fares charges by airlines for tickets were almost similar.
Commission prima facie opined that the airlines viz. Jet Airways (including Jet lite), Indigo, Spice Jet, Go Air and Air India exhibited characteristics of anti-competitive conduct which was in contravention of Sections 3(1) read with 3(3) of Competition Act.
In view of the above Commission had passed an Order dated 26-03-2015 directing DG to cause investigation.
DG found that that the market shares and market positions of different airlines have not remained stable during 2010- 2016.
On analysing further in terms of airfare determination, DG concluded that there was no contravention of Sections 3(1) read with 3(3) of Competition Act.
Role of software/algorithm deployed by the airlines
It was observed by the DG that airlines use softwares for the purpose of revenue management which includes determination of prices.
Use of software by Air India is the least when compared to the other competing airlines in as much as its fare is determined manually by its route controllers a few months before the date of departure.
Route controllers also access external websites like Make My Trip, Clear My Trip, etc. to know the current market situation across the routes and take a final call on pricing of the ticket.
Elaborating more on the above-stated aspects, DG added to its observation that the softwares used by the airlines were noted to be guided by algorithms (formulae) in-built in the software, configured by the software company, on the basis of inputs provided by the revenue management team of each airline to the software developer.
The role of the software is limited to the extent of helping the revenue management team to arrive at a price that will optimize revenue. However, the algorithm as well as the final price of the ticket are determined by the personnel working in the revenue management team of each airline.
Hence, the DG stated that the revenue management team also called route analysts have the final say in fixing the prices. They take into account certain events like IPL matches, some international conferences, cultural events, etc.
Fare Buckets and Route Analysts
An algorithm configured by software allocates the total number of tickets to different fare buckets immediately on opening of the flight. The route analyst after taking into consideration the competitive airfares determine the price for each bucket.
Further, airlines keep on changing the price/inventory allocated to fare buckets due to change in demand and competitive price, which may happen multiple times a day. When a sale happens, the flight fare moves from a lower bucket to a higher bucket.
Data analysis showed that there was no sacrosanct rule for shifting from one bucket to another. However, it was noted that competitive pricing and availability of unsold inventory become the guiding factor for the route analysts to determine the prices at any given point in time.
Nothing amounted to or displayed a pattern towards a wilful concerted action on the part of the airlines.
DG noticed that ticket prices for a relevant route are opened one year in advance for the purpose of booking and the earlier a ticket is booked, lower the fare is and vice-versa.
Airlines follow the system of dynamic pricing where the same product (economy class seat) is sold at different prices to customers depending on their date of booking.
Conclusive Report of DG
DG on analysis with respect to daily bucket wise movement of price, relationship between price and capacity did not find any evidence suggestive of meeting of minds, no contravention of Section 3(1) and 3(3) of the Competition Act was found.
Bench observed that in order to determine as to whether there was any kind of understanding or arrangement between the airlines in contravention of provisions of the Act, the DG had analysed the market share of five airlines on four sectors during the reference period, as well as their airfare and its determination practices in order to detect any sign of stability or parallelism, or any possibility of communication between the airlines to fix prices, etc., if any.
Commission did not find a pattern of stability or parallelism between the airlines.
Further, the Bench noted that parallel conduct is actionable under the Act only when the adaptation to the market conditions is not done independently and is attributable to information exchanged between the competitors or through some other collusive conduct, the object of which is to influence the market.
Nothing amounting to the above was found.
Commission opined that although softwares for the purpose of revenue management are used, but manual intervention plays a pivotal role in the final determination of the prices.
Revenue management personnel play key role in determination of airfares whereas softwares are merely used to facilitate their decision making.
Hence, nothing on record was found to establish a cartel amongst airlines during the period April 2012-March 2014.[Alleged Cartelization in the Airlines Industry, In re., 2021 SCC OnLine CCI 3, decided on 22-02-2021]