Politicizing freedoms of the skies

THERE is an ugly side to the standoff between Canada and the United Arab Emirates over the bid by Dubai-based Emirates Airlines to operate not only additional flights to Canada  but also to expand beyond Toronto to Vancouver and Calgary. (See Roadblocks in Open Skies, Apr 12, 2010). The UAE is also seeking inroads for a second carrier, Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways. 

There are the usual arguments. Air Canada says expansion by Emirates will cost the country jobs and money while Emirates counters that Canada will benefit from the creation of new jobs. 

While airport operators – the Vancouver International Airport Authorities being one – would welcome new carriers and additional flights to grow the airport, Ottawa maintains it is an unfair deal. Even if there were to be some compromise, observers believe that national Canada`s priority is Toronto, not other airports. 

The Harper government thinks UAE’s carriers will enjoy an unfair advantage over Air Canada – that their interest is not in bringing more passengers into Canada or serving its domestic market, but in tapping into the lucrative international traffic out of Canada, principally to ports in Europe. 

It is obvious which the hungrier party is. 

Some six months after the reported commercial disagreement, it is now revealed how the negotiation has taken on a political dimension. Apparently, the UAE has been threatening to evict Canada from Camp Mirage, its military base near Dubai where it launches its Afghanistan-bound troops, if Canada does not accede to its request.

The Canadian government is now preparing for relocation to an alternative base outside the UAE. 

The way the negotiation has developed raises the question: At which point does a demand become unconscionable?

Politicizing a commercial issue is apt to become contentious. It is distasteful. While there may be strong economic arguments in favour of UAE’s (or any other airline almost anywhere else in the world) for greater access in the name of open skies, its unrelated demands may be viewed in less favourable light as being unreasonable, not unlike the manner of browbeating.

Both Transport Canada and Air Canada have opposed linking the two issues. To begin with, it is not even a case of the UAE not supporting Canada’s commitment in Afghanistan.

One cannot rule out that such hidden agenda, expressed or tacit, could have crept into and endorsed in past agreements signed between various countries. However, if the UAE’s proposal openly legitimizes linking air negotiations with geopolitical issues, the game changes.

Out of the window go economic considerations and applications, imperfect as they are in present day circumstances. It may appear to be an effective way to break the barriers of trade protectionism, but arm-twisting tactics may have repercussions on a more wide-ranging spectrum of issues, the ensuing knock-on effect included, than just the focal exchange of freedoms of the skies 

Universal open skies and fair competition may be relegated to the backseat.

Yet, flipping the coin, right or wrong, how different is this from the imposition of economic sanctions by one country or a political bloc to pressurize an allegedly insurgent third-party nation to yield? 

Indeed, does the end always justify the means?

See also http://www.aspireaviation.com

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About David Leo
David Leo has more than 30 years of aviation experience, having served in senior management in one of the world's best airlines and airports. He continues to maintain a keen interest in the business, writes freelance and provides consultancy services in the field.

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