Cantillon: Fog of speculation obscures IAG bid for Aer Lingus

Lack of transparency occludes potential difficulties with European Commission

It is not clear if the IAG bid for Aer Lingus has run into some real turbulence with the European Commission's competition directorate or if the concerns raised by the Brussels mergers' watchdog amount to no more than a slight wobble.

The two airlines went to Europe last week for a "state-of-play" meeting with commission mandarins blessed with the power to block IAG's €1.4 billion bid, driven by chief executive Willie Walsh, for the Irish airline if there is evidence that it will seriously damage competition.

Some dismiss it as routine, others say it indicates that something serious could be afoot. The reality appears to fall somewhere in between: the commission has concerns but they may not be fatal to any deal.

One likely issue is the resulting concentration of valuable take-off and landing slots at Heathrow in IAG's hands. Two of its subsidiaries, BA and Iberia, between them already own more than 52 per cent of the 700-plus slots available at the London hub. Aer Lingus will add 23, bringing the figure to about 55 per cent.


The question is whether the commission will scrutinise what happens in Heathrow in isolation from the rest of the Ireland-London air travel market. It is open to it to take this approach or a number of others, including analysing the overall Ireland-London market.

However, no-one knows which one the commission will take and, of course, the officials are not saying, as the process is secret.

With commercial interests at stake, some confidentiality is needed, but, particularly given a quarter of Aer Lingus still belongs to Irish citizens, that should be balanced with some transparency.

Publishing submissions from interested parties, outlining how the commission views the market and intends weighing it up, would be a step in the right direction. This is made public once the commission has ruled, so why not during the process?

All the lack of transparency does is create a fog of speculation.