Trans-Atlantic carriers embroiled in a series of lawsuits with the European Commission still hope for a peaceful solution to the legal battle, despite a recent setback. Last month, Brussels lodged a complaint against the hub-and-spoke distribution system set up in Europe by members of the Trans-Atlantic Conference Agreement. That move shocked carriers. They thought the new arrangement would help smooth relations with European competition regulators.
Nevertheless, TACA lines are still considering an expansion of the new inland transport arrangements that are designed to reduce shippers' costs.If TACA members agree to extend the hub-and-spoke system to more destinations across Europe, they then hope to present the initiative to the European Commission as a basis for an out-of-court settlement.
''We want to find a solution to the problem,'' Olav Rakkenes, chairman of TACA, said this week.
Under the system that is still in pilot stages, inland hubs are given the same status as seaports. A shipper that in the past would have been charged the cost of moving a container from a port to an inland destination and back again now can return or pick up a container from a depot in Munich, Frankfurt or Lyon, and avoid the cost of the extra leg.
The TACA lines developed the system in response to pressure from Brussels to increase the efficiency of their inland transport services.
The commission, which claims the carriers are breaking EU competition laws by setting inland rates collectively as part of a multimodal tariff, had suggested that shipping lines working together to improve their road, rail and barge services may be granted individual exemption from the European Union's antitrust laws.
But in the latest statement of objections, the commission questions whether price-fixing between carriers for moving containers to and from the inland depot is ''indispensable'' in order to achieve the perceived benefits for shippers.
Neither does this arrangement have any bearing on the argument about whether carriers have the right to set other inland freight rates together, the commission states.
Accordingly, Brussels says there is no justification for concluding that the implementation of the hub-and-spoke system justifies exempting
TACA carriers from the general practice of fixing prices for all inland transport activities. Although the hub-and-spoke arrangement is still in its infancy and not being used very much, senior TACA officials still see this as the best vehicle for ending the hostilities between the carriers and Brussels and, hopefully, reaching an amicable settlement.
Over the next few weeks,
TACA lines will be deciding whether to expand the program across Europe. They also will have to agree on whether to cut their road, rail and barge rates to levels that are directly comparable with those of more efficient inland carriers.
If consensus is reached among TACA members, the lines will then approach Brussels to see whether the legal standoff can be resolved out of court. But should Brussels reject the peace offering, then the court cases could drag on into the next century, with the threat of hefty fines hanging over the carriers if they eventually lose their appeal against the charges.