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No one who has faced the reality of dawn raids and the prospect of an expensive and lengthy investigation will feel anything but empathy for the individuals at shipping lines that this week were raided by European Commission competition officials.
A dozen lines, including Maersk, CMA-CGM, Hapag-Lloyd, Hamburg Sud, Cosco, Evergreen, Hanjin and OOCL are all under investigation – a roll call of the world’s top container lines. 
It is not expected to stop there. Anti-competition lawyers believe this is just the beginning of a long, hard look at the shipping industry, with tramp trades and other sectors expected to be affected. 
It appears unlikely the investigation was prompted by a complaint. Instead, lawyers believe that Brussels, having ended ‘conferences’ between shipping lines in 2008, were giving the industry some time to bring itself into line with the new regime before checking that the rules had been thoroughly applied. 
Two aspects are likely to be under scrutiny, say lawyers. The possibility of collective capacity manipulation when ships were kept in lay-up last year as demand began to recover, and unlawful signalling of planned freight rate or surcharge rises. 

(It does make one wonder, though, that if the shipping lines were colluding on freight rates, why they have recently had shockingly low, below-the-point-of-breakeven rates on Asia-Europe. If you are going to cheat, at least make it profitable.)
Lawyers say there is no better comparison than the air cargo industry.
No one wants to see anti-competitive practices. But equally, no one wants to see the decimation of an industry. And observers might start to wonder if this is really all about anti-competitive practices so much as a money-making scheme by regulatory authorities, who appear to move from one industry to another, creaming the profits off the top. 
The European Commission alone stands to make €800 million from 11 carriers if they lose their appeals. And a DoJ press release from 2008 boasts: “If the court accepts the plea agreements, it would bring the total fines imposed in the Antitrust Division’s investigation in the air transportation industry to more than $1.27 billion, marking the highest total amount of fines ever imposed in a criminal antitrust investigation.”
“A lot of this is complete nonsense,” says one veteran air freight forwarder, speaking before the shipping line raid. “I see my colleagues worried sick about extradition. And from a forwarder’s point of view, it’s their job to get the best rates. For the DoJ it is simply a money-raising activity, and it’s completely ludicrous. And when administrations feel they have sucked enough blood out of an industry they move on to another.”
And so they have. So does this mean air cargo is now off the hook? Probably not quite yet, as there are still one or two prizes to be had. But it does mark the start of it being someone else’s turn, now the air cargo industry has nothing left to give.
Perhaps one of the saddest aspects though, as many have admitted, is the way the investigations have changed the social aspects of the industry for good. Colleagues and friends can no longer talk with ease, travel has been restricted for some, bars are no longer the place to do business. 
And it is probable that some of the current issues facing air cargo, many of which could be solved through having a collective industry voice, stem from an inability to talk freely and openly to discuss how to help the industry mature.

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