SA Airlink passengers on the the Johannesburg-Mthatha route overpaid about R100m over five years, an investigation by the Competition Commission has found.

The commission said on Wednesday it had referred SA Airlink to the Competition Tribunal for prosecution on charges of excessive and predatory pricing after an investigation.

This stems from complaints lodged by businessman Khwezi Tiya‚ Fly Blue Crane and the OR Tambo District Chamber of Business between 2015 and 2017. They alleged that Airlink‚ a privately controlled regional feeder airline‚ had excessive pricing before Fly Blue Crane entered the route.

SA Airlink is alleged to have then lowered its prices below its costs — referred to as predatory pricing — when Fly Blue Crane entered the route. Another claim is that SA Airlink went back to its exorbitant prices after Fly Blue Crane exited the route in January 2017.

The airline is now non-operational and in business rescue.

Fly Blue Crane arrived on the scene charging only R799 for a one-way flight‚ while Airlink offered a return flight for R4‚000‚ DispatchLIVE reported in 2017. Airlink provided two return flights per day between Mthatha and Johannesburg from Monday to Friday and one on Saturdays and Sundays.

But when Fly Blue Crane appeared‚ Airlink introduced a third flight and slashed its return fares to R2‚000.

The Dispatch reported that Airlink had been operating flights from Mthatha to Johannesburg since the government pumped in about R700m towards the renovation of the Mthatha airport which included the construction of a R250m 3km runway to accommodate larger aircraft.

Airlink CEO Rodger Foster on Wednesday denied the allegations and said the carrier welcomed the opportunity to put its case before the tribunal so that the matter could be put to rest.

“Airlink has, and will continue to, co-operate fully and openly with SA’s competition authorities. We are confident our conduct has been and remains in full compliance with competition rules and the law.”

The service between Mthatha and Johannesburg remained operational, according to Foster.

However, the Competition Commission said its investigation found the following:

• SA Airlink contravened the Competition Act by abusing its dominance from September 2012 to August 2016 by charging excessive prices on the route to the detriment of consumers;

• Consumers would have saved between R89m and R108m had SA Airlink not priced excessively on this route;

• Lower prices would also have resulted in more passengers travelling by air on the route‚ possibly contributing to the local economy of Mthatha;

• The airline engaged in predatory pricing in that it priced below its average variable costs and average avoidable costs for some of its flights.

• The predatory pricing conduct of SA Airlink contributed to the exit of Fly Blue Crane‚ their only competitor at the time on the Johannesburg-Mthatha route; and

• The effect of the predation is also likely to deter future competition on this route from other airlines.

The commission wants an administrative penalty of up to 10% of SA Airlink’s annual turnover for both the conduct of excessive pricing and predatory pricing.

In addition‚ the commission has asked the tribunal "to determine other appropriate remedies in order to correct the conduct".

Deputy commissioner Hardin Ratshisusu said: "This conduct has had a negative effect on the route, even contributing to the exit of a new competitor that had entered the market in late 2016."