Every once and awhile I’ll agree with Stephen Harper on something, and this is one of those times: when the United Arab Emirates decided to link Canadian military use of the not-really secret Camp Mirage (used to support our forces in Afghanistan) with landing rights for their state-owned and subsidized airlines, my answer would also have been to tell the UAE to stick it.
“For the UAE to hold Camp Mirage up for ransom was the last straw for [the Prime Minister],” a source close to the issue told The Globe.
The Liberals are blaming Tory "incompetence" for an embarrassing landing-rights dispute between Canada and the United Arab Emirates.
The two countries were in talks to allow UAE airlines more flights to Canadian airports, but the deal was called off.
As a result, Canada has lost access to a major staging ground for troops headed in and out of Afghanistan.
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said that resulted in the "absurd spectacle" of Canada's top soldier and two cabinet ministers barred from landing in the UAE on their way out of Kandahar.
He called it a "simple story of incompetence" and said it's another sign the Harper government is out of touch on the world stage.
Now, what about the larger issue of greater landing rights for Emirates Airlines in Canada? I seem to be with the government on this one as well: they’re not warranted at this time.
The fact is, there isn’t near enough direct Canada to UAE direct traffic to warrant an increase in capacity. And Emirates knows that. They’ve been pouring billions of government dollars into making their airline and their brand new $32 billion airport a transit hub: funnel traffic through Dubai and on to Asia and other destinations. They don’t come out and say it, but their goal is to siphon off transit passengers that now transit through Europe with other airlines. That’s their entire business model. It has nothing to do with UAE-Canada direct traffic.
Negotiations over landing rights are about reciprocal access, and opening up markets to the benefit of each country. But the fact is Canadian airlines have little interest in flying to the UAE (even if UAE were willing to offer equal access) because there is little market for direct traffic. Like the big hotels and indoor ski hills built on a mountain of debt, it’s a mirage. The UAE simply wants to siphon off business from Canadian airlines, with little to no benefit to Canadian airlines or consumers. Why should we agree to that?
Now, there are those that argue we should have open skies, fair competition, let the market win and consumers benefit from lower prices. Let foreign airlines fly point to point within Canada (it’s called cabotage in airline lingo). Is that the answer? I say, not really. Proponents of this argument like to point to Europe, land of super-low fare airlines such as Ryan Air and Air Berlin. But they miss a few key points.
Key among them is that Europe is a highly and densely populated compact region. You have a lot of people travelling within a smaller space. Canada is more sparsely populated, with significantly fewer people. If we threw open the doors tomorrow, I don’t doubt I could get home to Vancouver from Toronto for a heckuva lot less than I could today on Air Canada or WestJet. That’s a high-traffic route with lots of high-value business traffic: new entrants would be quick to jump on that.
But unless you live in Vancouver or Toronto, and maybe Montreal, you won’t see any benefit. You think Lufthansa will be servicing Fredericton? Will JAL be flying to Saskatoon? Not a chance. They’ll pick off the high-value, high-traffic domestic routes that feed into their international routes. And it’s on those international routes that the airlines make what money they do make.
The domestic routes are actually subsidized by the international traffic, and are more important as a feeder into the international network. So what happens when you allow Emirates to siphon off high-value international business, and let international airlines fly domestically within Canada on the few high-traffic routes? You siphon revenue from Canadian airlines with no reciprocal business opportunity, and force them to drop low-profit domestic routes in a futile attempt to compete on price. So, yes, your flight from Toronto to Sydney via Dubai will be cheaper. But you’ll need to drive from Winnipeg to Toronto to catch the flight. Or see your savings evaporate because of an astronomical Winnipeg to Toronto flight.
And, of course, the “open, fair competition” argument presupposes a level playing field. With the debt-ridden UAE government pouring billions into both its state-owned airlines and its airport infrastructure, the playing field is anything but open, fair and level.
The Harper government hasn’t gotten much right on foreign policy lately. But they’ve made the right call here: say no to UAE blackmail.