The outcome of the European Commission's antitrust investigation into Sabre and Amadeus is unpredictable at this point, according to Phocuswright analyst Dirk Rogl.

The investigation into the two GDSs, the commission said in a statement, will examine if their agreements with airlines and travel agencies are restricting agencies' ability to use other ticket distribution services. 

In a statement, commissioner Margrethe Vestager said, "We are concerned that such restrictions could create barriers to innovation and raise ticket distribution costs, ultimately raising ticket prices for travelers."

There is no legal deadline limiting the length of the investigation; that depends on a number of factors, the commission said, including the case's complexity and the cooperation of the companies involved. Sabre and Amadeus have indicated they would fully cooperate.

If the companies are found to be in violation of European Union antitrust rules, they would be fined based on the duration and gravity of the violation. Fines are capped at 10% of a company's annual revenue.

Rogl observed, "In the unpredictable case that [the commission] found violations of antitrust rules, surely this might end in a significant change of current business models, with a relevant impact for the global travel ecosystem. But there is a long way to go [to see] if it will end up like this."

While Rogl said there must be a "presumption of innocence for Sabre and Amadeus," he added that the commission is "very strict in antitrust topics." As an example, he pointed to a ruling this past summer against Google, which was fined a record $5 billion by the commission for antitrust violations related to its Android mobile devices. Google has appealed the fine.

Travelport, a GDS that competes with Amadeus and Sabre, is not part of the commission's investigation and declined to comment. Rogl called Travelport's market share in Europe "rather small" compared with that of Sabre and Amadeus.

According to Rogl, the investigation comes at a time when the commission is doing a "deep dive" into the European airline landscape. He said a combination of GDS booking surcharges from major carriers Lufthansa, IAG and Air France-KLM as well as IATA's New Distribution Capability (NDC) in general, "drove a wedge into the European airline industry." OTAs and travel technology providers have vocally opposed the carriers' surcharges.

Meanwhile, the commission in September opened a period of public consultation to evaluate its code of conduct for computerized reservation systems. That move followed arguments from OTAs that airlines have essentially created their own GDSs through their legacy systems and websites, Rogl said. That, in turn, could impact major European airlines' direct distribution strategies.

Both Sabre and Amadeus issued lengthy statements about the investigation.

Sabre called its agreements with airlines and agencies "pro-competitive."

The company said the recent creation of its Travel Solutions business unit and investments in NDC point to "its commitment to drive innovation in airline retailing, distribution and fulfillment to accelerate the development of next-generation technology solutions for the benefit of airlines, travel agents and travelers."

Amadeus said the investigation had been "expected for some time."

According to Amadeus, airlines can decide what products and services to offer consumers and agents through the GDS, and agents can work with one or more GDS or aggregator, "thus taking advantage of the fierce competition between them."

In 2007, the commission cleared a joint venture between Amadeus and Sabre for the creation of automatic payment solution Moneydirect.


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