Seven international airlines have been served with a A$200 million class action in Australia accusing them of global price fixing on air freight from 2000.
Melbourne law firm Maurice Blackburn Cashman is leading the action against Qantas, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Air New Zealand, Japan Air Lines and British Airways.
A writ filed in the federal court alleges freight charges were unlawfully over-inflated through surcharges imposed by the airlines including fuel surcharges, security charges and war risk fees to cover insurance costs associated with the Iraq war.
The lead litigant is Auskay International, a Victorian-based importer of vacuum systems and distributor of home and business security equipment such as alarm systems, video door phones, audio intercom systems and video surveillance.
Kim Parker of Maurice Blackburn Cashman, said several potential litigants had contacted the firm since the statement of claim was filed, with thousands of businesses eligible to join the action.
Â¡Â°We have received multiple inquiries about the many thousands of businesses that will be affected by the cartel,Â¡Â± she said.
While the suit claims that each of the individual major airlines are liable for the whole A$200 million, Parker said a negotiated settlement or court decision was likely to split the amount to reflect each airlineÂ¡Â¯s share of the air freight market in Australia.
Qantas said it had received a statement of complaint and was looking at the allegations. The lawsuit stems from investigations by US and European regulators into a scheme adopted by major international airlines that led to Qantas being subpoenaed last year by the US Department of Justice.
The airline said it immediately undertook a detailed review of its cargo operations to see whether it had complied with the law.
Â¡Â°During this investigation, Qantas has learned that the practice adopted by the cargo industry to fix and impose fuel charges may have breached relevant competition laws,Â¡Â± the airline said at the time, adding it was not possible to quantify the liability associated with any claims.
Air New Zealand said the action appeared to be Â¡Â°yet another attemptÂ¡Â± by an opportunistic law firm to target large, high profile corporates.
Â¡Â°This action has all the hallmarks of similar class actions that Air New Zealand has been subject to in the past, including in the USA,Â¡Â± Air NZ general counsel John Blair said.
Â¡Â°In responding to requests for information from various regulators, we have yet to see anything which causes us to conclude that Air New Zealand has breached applicable competition laws.Â¡Â±
The Australian lawsuit comes after similar cases in the US and Canada, one of which resulted in an $85 million settlement by Lufthansa. Parker said a win could pave the way for a lawsuit on behalf of passengers, who were also subject to fuel surcharges.
Â¡Â°ItÂ¡Â¯s quite possible we will do that but weÂ¡Â¯re presently focused on the issues in this class action,Â¡Â± she said. Parker said the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission was investigating the alleged cartel, which could result in a Â¡Â°two-pronged attackÂ¡Â± against the airlines.
Â¨C John Spiers