The Court said that the Commission had imposed the fines based on "contradictory lines of reasoning" and had based its decision on four infringements, some of which were not committed by all of the airlines concerned.
"The operative part of the decision refers … to four infringements relating to different periods and routes and committed by different carriers, whereas the grounds refer to one single and continuous worldwide infringement covering all the routes. In the course of the proceedings, all of the applicant companies submitted that there was a contradiction between the grounds and the operative part of the decision," the Court said in a statement.
Any decision made by the Commission should be "particularly clear and precise", it said, and the organisations who are being penalised must be able to understand and contest the penalties. National courts, too, must be able to understand the scope of the infringement and identify who is liable in order to make decisions on damage claims, the Court said.
Competition law expert Ben Lasserson of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com said: "The Court's statement is strongly critical of the Commission's approach and there will almost certainly be an appeal to the Court of Justice of the EU. The decision will also have a major impact on the myriad of long-running damages actions that have been brought on the back of the Commission's 2010 findings."
The airlines that had been fined for their participation in the cartel included Air France, KLM, Air Canada, Martinair Holland, British Airways, Cargolux, Cathay Pacific Airways, Japan Airlines, LAN Chile, Qantas, SAS and Singapore Airlines. Lufthansa was also involved but was not fined as it was the whistle-blower on the cartel and gave information to the Commission.