UAE arm-twists Canada for more flights

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is applying more pressure on Canada to grant additional flights to flag carrier Dubai-based Emirates Airlines – and to allow it to operate not only to Toronto but also to other ports, possibly Vancouver and Calgary. UAE would also like access for a second carrier – Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways. (See Politicizing Freedoms of the Skies, Oct 9, 2010).

The latest squeeze comes in the form of a C$1,000 visa fee for Canadians visiting the UAE. This has raised the ire of Canadians who view the move as punitive, exceeding global norms. It is tempting to link the harsh measure to the ongoing bilateral discord on aviation rights, but spokeswoman Melissa Lantsman for Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail: “The decision to impose visas on Canadians travelling to the UAE was made by the UAE in 2009 and is now being implemented.”

Following an earlier round of disagreement, the UAE evicted Canada from Camp Mirage, its secret military base near Dubai where it launched its Afghanistan-bound troops – despite opposition by Transport Canada and Air Canada to linking the two matters. Camp Mirage was established soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

The UAE might have suffered a slap in the face when in the midst of the dispute, Canada went on to execute an aviation agreement with Qatar – a Middle-East neighbour – to allow Qatar Airways to operate three passenger and three cargo flights weekly into Canada. However, the Canadian government maintained the two negotiations were unrelated. Miss Lantsman said: “We must manage a strong international demand for access to the Canadian market. The new agreement with Qatar is in the best interest of Canadians.”

Both Canada and the UAE have presented their economic cases. They are familiar arguments as can be found in the history of most bilateral air negotiations.

The Canadian government has its suspicions: UAE’s carriers will enjoy an unfair advantage over Air Canada in tapping into its international traffic, the outcome of which will be the loss of “tens of thousands” of Canadian jobs, and that Emirates is subsidized by the UAE government.

Emirates refuted all those arguments and asserted instead that Canada would enjoy the creation of new jobs. Through its lobbyist Temple Scott Associates Inc, Emirates insisted that its presence in Canada “will only deliver favourable benefits to the Canadian economy and in particular to the travelling public.” It said excess capacity would not be an issue.

They are arguments on both sides of a coin, and until the coin lands on its side, the deadlock is not surprising.

The latest move by the UAE to politicize the negotiations may unnecessarily hurt not just Canada but also the UAE. Trade and travel between the two countries – which enjoy a billion-dollar trade ties – will be affected. There is a reported 25,000 Canadian citizens residing and working in the UAE. Much of the traffic also comprises family visits to the middle-east region by migrants who have moved to Canada.

However, apparently UAE carriers offer cheaper visa rates than those posted by the UAE embassy in Ottawa if the documents are arranged through them. This may be viewed as a hard-nosed commercial move by UAE carriers but it only serves to drive home the Canadian suspicion of unfair competition.

Alas, too much bad blood has been bred. Considering how pride has now complicated the negotiations, someone has to offer the olive branch. Diplomacy is the way forward.

Emirates’ pursuit of the Holy Grail in landing rights echoes the quest of airlines such as Singapore Airlines (SIA) (which has been its start-up model) and to a lesser extent Cathay Pacific Airways before China opens its doors. SIA has succeeded in reaching out and far, but it also faces obstacles, such as its inability to convince British authorities for access from London across the Atlantic to the eastern seaboard of the United States and the Australian refusal to allow it to operate from Sydney across the Pacific to Los Angeles.

There were the usual arguments about the benefits of competition/unfair competition, government subsidies, job loss/job creation, excess capacity/growth opportunities, trade-offs, and so on. Until the coin lands on its side, persistence may be all that is left to sustain the quest.

This article also appeared on 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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