ANALYSIS: Verdict on Virgin-Tiger deal likely to change market dynamics

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It has taken nearly six months, but Australia's competition watchdog is now preparing to announce its decision on Tiger Airways Australia's proposed tie-up with Virgin Australia on April 24 - a ruling that will reshape Australia's airline industry.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has delayed an announcement on a decision twice, in order to seek more information from the two carriers on their plans for the low-cost carrier's future.

The joint venture arrangement, which was announced in October last year, would lead to Virgin taking a 60% stake in the budget carrier.

Tiger Australia would continue to operate as a separate airline under its brand and remain focused on the budget market in Australia. Virgin and Tiger would be jointly responsible for appointing the board and senior managers at the carrier.

In February, the ACCC took the unusual step of releasing a "Statement of Issues", which gave some insight into the particular concerns that it held about the proposal, and the focus of its investigations.

In the document, the watchdog made it clear that it held concerns that allowing the tie-up to proceed would remove the competitive tension which has kept fares in the domestic market low.

"The ACCC's preliminary view is that the proposed acquisition may increase the risk of coordination between Virgin and Qantas Group and their respective airlines," it says. "Any such coordinated conduct may lead to muted competition between the airlines on fares and services."

The ACCC adds that despite its small size and limited network, Tiger Australia has had a moderating effect on airfares since its launch in 2007.

Conversely, official statistics show that discount airfares rose in the second half of 2011, during and following its six-week grounding from 1 July that year. Tiger Australia was also affected by operational restrictions for a number of months afterwards and this continued to have an impact on airfares for most of that year.

The ACCC also says that the joint venture may "increase the prospect of any potential new entrant being deterred from entry since they face a potential strategic response from either or both of the two large dual-branded incumbents that would exist post-acquisition".

In response, Virgin and Tiger have argued that the access to low-cost capital and the growth of the low-cost carrier business model would, instead, make it easier for a new competitor to enter the Australian market.

Further complicating the matter is the threat that Tiger Australia may be shut down if the ACCC blocks the joint venture arrangement.

In February, Tiger said that it would not seek further investors in the Australian unit if the Virgin arrangement does not proceed, leaving little future for the company that has lost close to Singapore dollars (S$) 200 million ($161 million) since opening.

In the February document, the ACCC said that it was analysing the scenario of Tiger Australia collapsing but, at that time, "[had] not yet formed a concluded view".

"In the event that the ACCC were to ultimately conclude that Tiger Australia would exit the market in the absence of the proposed acquisition, this would be highly relevant to its assessment as to whether the proposed acquisition would be likely to result in a substantial lessening of competition as compared to the situation if the proposed acquisition did not proceed," it adds.

However, Commonwealth Bank analyst Matt Crowe says that scenario would raise its own questions.

"The ACCC is entitled to ask 'if Virgin Australia is convinced Tiger [Australia] will leave the domestic market, why did it pay $72 million to buy 60% of Tiger [Australia] rather than wait for it to leave the market then take its place?'" he says.

The ACCC has also noted that allowing the joint venture to go ahead could also be positive for the travelling public, primarily by boosting competition in the budget end of the market.

In an interview on ABC TV last year, ACCC chairman Rod Sims admitted that "Virgin will be in a much better position to take on Jetstar by using Tiger [Australia]".

The ACCC also appears to have taken some comfort in the suggestion by John Borghetti that it could grow the Tiger Australia fleet to up to 35 aircraft by 2015, compared with 11 now.

"If it is accepted that such an increase in capacity would take place, this would diminish the prospect of any increase in coordinated conduct in the market, both because it would increase supply in its own right and because this capacity increase may induce Qantas/Jetstar to respond competitively," the ACCC says.

Crowe says that the ACCC "wants more than just public comments about an intention to grow the Tiger fleet in Australia. Rather, it requires a binding undertaking or a condition such as the one it has just imposed on Qantas and Emirates in the trans-Tasman market".

Borghetti, however, has pointed out that the fleet plans are subject to market conditions, and warned the regulator against making the expansion of the Tiger Australia fleet a condition of the deal.

He has also given indications that the carrier may have other options up its sleeve if it cannot get approval on the right terms.

In a recent interview with Australian investment website Business Spectator, he added that while the Tiger Australia deal was "very important to us" that it was "not important enough for us to do it at any price".