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LOS ANGELES � More than 70 antitrust class actions have been filed against Korean Air Lines Co. in the wake of its agreement to pay a $300 million fine to the U.S. Department of Justice and plead guilty to fixing prices on international passenger and cargo air fares. The fine, levied in August, is the first in the federal government’s two-year investigation into whether some of the world’s major airlines set up illegal cartels with each other in order to charge artificially high fuel surcharges to passengers and purchasers of air freight shipping. British Airways PLC also agreed in August to pay a $300 million fine to the Justice Department and admitted fixing prices on passenger and cargo shipping rates. Since the airline’s plea deal, dozens of class actions that were filed last year on behalf of British Airways passengers have been stayed pending mediation talks. Thirty carriers face action But the plea deal with Korean Air opened the doors for more antitrust suits, all filed in the past three months primarily in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle, said Jason Hartley, a partner in the San Diego office of Washington-based Ross, Dixon & Bell, which represents plaintiffs in eight class actions. “It basically told us that Korean Air has admitted to price-fixing that market,” he said. “When you enter a guilty plea, and you pay a fine, liability is not really an issue in our case.” Separately, more than 30 carriers, including Korean Air and British Airways, face class actions alleging price-fixing on behalf of companies that paid for air freight shipping. More than a dozen airlines are believed to be under investigation in the government’s price-fixing probe. The government charged Korean Air and British Airways with violations of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Beginning in January 2000, Korean Air fixed base ticket prices and fuel surcharges for passengers flying to and from the United States and Korea until July 2006. The airline also fixed rates for cargo customers until February 2006. British Airways fixed prices until February 2006 on air cargo services, beginning in March 2002, and passenger services, beginning in August 2004, to and from the United States and the United Kingdom. The Korean Air suits, which represent a class action of thousands of passengers, allege that the airline violated federal and, in some cases, state antitrust provisions in conspiring to add false fuel surcharges onto passenger ticket prices. “Our allegation is they set prices to artificially manipulate the market and cheat consumers,” said Hartley. “What they assessed on consumers and called ‘fuel surcharges’ had no relation to the cost of fuel. They conspired and used fuel surcharges as a revenue-generating machine and not legitimately to cover what they said were the increasing costs of fuel.” Peter Halle, a partner in the Washington office of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, who represents Korean Air, did not return calls. The recent plea deal with British Airways affects civil litigation pending against the airline, said Michael Hausfeld, a partner at Washington’s Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll who is lead counsel in the passenger cases against British Airways. In re International Air Transportation Surcharge Antitrust Litigation, No. M:06-cv-01793 (N.D. Calif.). “The guilty pleas establish the fact of liability,” Hausfeld said. “Neither of those companies can contest whether or not they entered into a legal agreement.” A lawyer for British Airways, Daryl Libow, a partner in the Washington office of New York’s Sullivan & Cromwell, did not return calls. David E. Vann Jr., a partner in the London office of New York-based Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, who represents Virgin Atlantic Airways, another defendant named in the suits with which British Airways allegedly conspired, declined to comment. Meanwhile, several of the airlines facing litigation over cargo shipping surcharges have filed motions to dismiss those claims in recent months. In re Air Cargo Shipping Services Antitrust Litigation, No. 1:06-md-01775 (E.D.N.Y.). A federal judge in the cargo cases has preliminarily approved an $85 million settlement with Lufthansa A.G.

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