The United Kingdom's competition watchdog is resuming a longstanding investigation into a transatlantic partnership between American Airlines, members of IAG International Airlines Group (British Airways, Iberia, and Aer Lingus), and Finnair in the context of post-Covid recovery in the aviation sector.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) on September 28 announced that the renewed probe into the Atlantic Joint Business Agreement (AJBA) between the five airlines will run until March 2024. It is liaising with the US Department of Transportation (DOT) but has stressed that no assumption should be made that the AJBA infringes UK competition law. Under the agreement's terms, the five airlines agreed not to compete on routes between the UK and the US.

The investigation dates back to 2018, when the CMA first launched a competition probe into the partnership, in line with a similar inquiry by the European Commission between 2009 and 2010. Following the EU probe, Brussels accepted 10-year binding commitments from the parties to address competition concerns on six UK/European-US routes: London-Boston, London-Chicago O'Hare, London-Dallas/Fort Worth, London-Miami International, London-New York, and Madrid Barajas-Miami. These included a commitment to make take-off and landing slots available to competitors at London Heathrow or London Gatwick. The 2010 commitments were designed to protect competition by requiring the AJBA airlines to release slots to competitors and provide other measures on certain routes.

On the expiry of the parties' commitments in 2020, there was no requirement for the European Commission to reassess the agreement, given the severe impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the aviation sector. The CMA decided to review afresh the competitive impact of the deal as five of the six routes are from the UK. However, it was unable to complete its investigations before the 2020 deadline. Consequently, it issued interim measures to bridge the enforcement gap, effectively extending the terms of the 2010 commitments for an additional three years until March 2024.

In February 2021, the CMA approved a slot release agreement that allowed a new competitor, United Airlines, to enter the London-Boston route.

In April 2022, the watchdog decided to extend the interim measures again, this time to March 2026, after it transpired that recovery from Covid was taking longer than anticipated. By then, it plans to have completed its investigation and establish longer-term measures, if needed, it said.

IAG and American Airlines, in separate statements, said they would continue to cooperate with the CMA and contribute to its data-gathering process. "For many years this joint business agreement has been bringing significant benefits to millions of travellers by providing better connections and new destinations,” IAG said. American Airlines said it remained committed to delivering the AJB benefits, including 75 daily flights from London to North America.