The National Society of French Railways (SNCF) sells its train tickets either directly, in particular via the online sales site voyages-sncf.com operated by one of its subsidiaries; or indirectly through SNCF-approved travel agencies remunerated by commission for the sale of tickets on its behalf in accordance with an agreement signed with the main trade union for travel agencies. The agencies are authorised to access the SNCF's computer reservation system, the use of which is invoiced by the SNCF.
Considering themselves victims of the SNCF's sales practices, which tend to favour its subsidiary online sales site to the detriment of competing travel agencies, AS Voyages, Karavel and Lastminute complained to the Competition Authority.
The Competition Authority acknowledged that the SNCF benefitted from a legal monopoly in the rail passenger transport market and from a dominant position in the leisure and business travel-agency-services market.
It rejected criticisms of a series of practices which did not prove to be discriminatory, but noted several practices that were likely to qualify as an abuse of a dominant position. In this respect, the authority noted a discrepancy between the commission system that the SNCF applied to its online sales site and that applied to competing agencies, without objective justification. Further, the SNCF subsidiary had access to strategic information and elements from the business plans of competing agencies. According to the Competition Authority, the fact that the company managing the reservation system was not separate from voyages-sncf.com was likely to give the website an unfair competitive advantage, allowing it to gain strategic information about its competitors, in particular sales volumes and the type of IT architecture used. Moreover, the SNCF's institutional website redirected users directly to voyages-sncf.com, which the Competition Authority believed was likely to create a competitive imbalance, allowing this website to attract part of the web traffic while taking advantage of the SNCF brand. The Competition Authority noted that although the public service operator's use of its brand image did not constitute abuse of a dominant position, such use must not lead to confusion between public service activity and competitive activity.
In order to respond to these concerns and end the competition proceedings without incurring sanctions for abuse of its dominant position, the SNCF proposed commitments which, following some changes, were accepted and imposed indefinitely. These commitments integrate the SNCF's subsidiary into the general travel agency system by subjecting it to a similar remuneration structure as its competitors. The SNCF also undertook to reorganise the subsidiary responsible for IT services by creating:
- a team dedicated to relationships with travel agencies, including the online sales site; and
- IT tools which would preserve the confidentiality of the travel agencies' requests.
The SNCF will also include train times on its institutional website without reference and without redirecting users to the online sales site.
Beyond the issues relating to the capacity of a public service operator in a competitive sector, this decision is in line with the tendency among competition authorities in Europe to take a close interest in travel agencies and online reservations sectors.
Emmanuelle van den Broucke
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