With class actions increasingly thick on the ground, it seems even agreeing to pay wronged shareholders isn’t enough to keep the ambulance chasers happy.

Multiplex and ASIC yesterday announced a deal that includes a $32 million payment to misled punters in the washup of Multiplex’s appalling lack of disclosure on its Wembley disaster.

It’s the first time ASIC has negotiated a compensation fund for investors, but that’s not enough for Maurice Blackburn Cashman – the lawyers running a class action against Multiplex. The case is going ahead covering a broader time frame than that dealt with by ASIC.

Elsewhere in lawyer land, a JP Morgan analyst’s report about Lufthansa in particular and airlines in general includes a throwaway line that Australia’s travel agents might well find of interest: “After two years of rising yields (driven by fuel price surcharges)…”

It could be part of a useful argument towards the agents’ $80 million class action against six international airlines – including $50 million from Qantas – over their refusal to pay commission on the fuel surcharge part of airline tickets.

Now Kiwi travel agents are chiming in with an NZ Herald report that they’ll seek compensation too if the Australian action is successful.

Fuel surcharges have been the airlines’ mechanism of choice for Claytons fare increases, a mechanism that has carried the bonus of not being commissionable. Slater & Gordon, acting for the travel agents, is calling it a “disguised air fare increase”.

The Smage notes that this case follows a successful action by British travel agents to force airlines to pay commission on an airport-related passenger service charge. Just to complete the circle, Slater & Gordon lawyer Stephen Lewis told AAP travel agents overseas are watching the local case with great interest as they could launch similar actions.

And the MacQanTexCoe takeover bid has played a role. With Qantas now slugging Sydney-London return passengers $340 in “fuel surcharge”, Lewis said the action was brought forward to the Federal Court in Sydney last Friday in the hope that the Roo would settle before its imminent takeover.

“Pretending the fuel isn’t part of the cost of an overseas ticket is like saying the wages for pilots should be charged separately,” Lewis told AAP.

Interestingly, Australia’s biggest travel agency, Flight Centre, is not taking part in the class action, which tends to confirm the suspicion that one of the reasons for its privatisation is to take on Qantas in the courts in its own right.

But there’s the usual sting in the legal tail of all this class action, like all the others. If the travel agents are successful, there’s a pretty good chance the airlines will increase fares to cover the cost. Maybe they’ll call it a commission surcharge.

Peter Fray

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