Indignant Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary has accused the UK’s competition watchdog of “false and misleading” claims over a controversial g1.4 billion (£1bn) takeover attempt at rival Aer Lingus.
The airline chief turned his wrath towards the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) which has issued a “final order” to the no-frills carrier to slash its 30 per cent stake in Aer Lingus to just five per cent.
The watchdog claims the holding is anti-competitive and allows Ryanair to “hold sway” over its Irish rival’s future.
British Airways owner International Airlines Group (IAG) is currently trying to buy out former national flag carrier Aer Lingus, in a move backed by the Dublin government two weeks ago.
Mr O’Leary said the fact IAG has already bid for the Irish State’s 25 per cent shareholding “has blown out of the water” the CMA stance, who he accused of “attempting to defend the indefensible”.
“The sole basis for their 2013 divestment decision was that Ryanair’s minority stake was or would prevent any other airline making a bid for or acquiring control of Aer Lingus,” he said.
“This bid process - which the CMA contended ‘could not take place’ - is now in fact taking place, but Mr [Simon] Polito and the CMA have again moved the goal posts to argue that Ryanair can somehow block an IAG bid for Aer Lingus from succeeding when it is patently clear that as a 29 per cent shareholder, Ryanair cannot prevent IAG acquiring control of Aer Lingus.”
This the latest chapter in a long-running saga that began in October 2006 with the first of three takeover bids by Ryanair for Aer Lingus which had been privatised just a month before.
Mr Polito, who headed up the CMA’s investigation into the shareholding, insists the IAG bid is dependent on securing Ryanair’s agreement to sell its shareholding.
“This recent development illustrates that Ryanair can decide whether a bid for its major competitor on UK/Irish routes succeeds or fails,” he said.
“This concern was an important part of our decision to require Ryanair to reduce its shareholding.
“It’s not good for competition when one company holds such an influence over the future of one of its major competitors.”
He added: “Although at this point Ryanair has yet to decide whether to sell its shares to IAG, we need to ensure that whatever happens in relation to this particular transaction, Ryanair’s ability to hold sway over Aer Lingus is removed.”
Mr Polito said the CMA will work closely with other authorities to ensure Ryanair reduces its stake in Aer Lingus.
Ryanair has rubbished the finding as “ridiculous” and vowed to mount a two-pronged appeal against the watchdog.
Ryanair’ spokeman Robin Kiely said it had instructed lawyers to take its case to the Competition Appeal Tribunal and the UK Supreme Court.
“Today’s CMA decision rejecting Ryanair’s request to review its order to divest Ryanair’s 29.8 per cent minority stake in Aer Lingus is manifestly wrong and flies in the face of the current IAG offer for Aer Lingus,” he said.