Canada’s dispute with the United Arab Emirates over airline landing rights lifts a curtain on a dispute between Ottawa and Western premiers over Canadian airline policy.
The bilateral quarrel also highlights a key exception the Harper Conservatives make in their habitual stand against protectionism.
Conservatives, like governments before them, have been protective of Canada’s domestic airline industry, reluctant to allow foreign carriers unfettered access to Canadian cities.
The UAE for many years has sought expanded landing rights in this country.
The disagreement blew open last weekend when the Middle Eastern country, in a high-profile expression of national anger, closed its airspace to a jet carrying Defence Minister Peter MacKay.
Further, the UAE has asked Canada to vacate its Camp Mirage military base over yonder in retaliation for this country’s airline protectionism.
This will complicate pending plans to move Canadian soldiers and equipment out of Afghanistan.
The issue over airline rights has festered for a while. In June, the Western Premiers’ Conference issued a statement: "The lack of Open Skies agreements is currently costing our economies hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of jobs.
"This goes beyond transportation. It is about the West’s ability to attract investors, trade, international students and tourists.
"Lack of agreements is holding Western economies back."
Specifically, the premiers contend, greater access for foreign carriers, particularly from the Asia-Pacific region, would translate into better airline service, increased flight options, enhanced competition and cheaper prices, as well as more jobs for Canadians.
In February, Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach publicly raised the matter of UAE airline access: "During my recent visit to the UAE, it was very apparent that Alberta needs to have direct international air access from key markets like the UAE in order to stay competitive in the global economy. "
That same month, a study by the B.C. office of InterVISTAS Consulting, commissioned by Emirates Airline, projected that extra Emirates Airline flights to Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver would deliver $480 million in economic benefits and more than 2,800 jobs to Canada.
"Canada’s domestic carriers stand to benefit significantly from the projected growth in foreign tourists and business travellers," asserted the study.
The state-backed Emirates Airline has been permitted to operate three flights weekly to Canada. It wants to fly daily to Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver.
Singapore Airlines and Icelandair also have been seeking greater access to the Canadian airline market.
Westerners have reason to want more flying options. It’s inconvenient to have to fly first to Toronto or Montreal in order to catch a flight to major European capitals and points beyond.
And based on the sub-par service I received aboard a recent Air Canada flight to Paris, Canada’s domestic airline might benefit from competition.
Room for competition also exists when it comes to price.
A study released last July by the Winnipeg-based Frontier Centre for Public Policy surveyed five cheapest-fare 3,300-mile flights and found Canadian passengers pay an average fare per mile of 45 cents. Americans pay 28 cents, and Europeans pay 16 cents.
The report, by Frontier research director Mark Milke, urged Ottawa to adopt an "open-skies" policy that would allow foreign airlines to operate unfettered in Canada, in exchange for similar rights for Canadian airlines abroad.
This has now become a hot political issue, with Opposition Liberals accusing the government of incompetence and bungling in its negotiations with the UAE and reports circulating that the Harper cabinet is split on the landing-rights controversy.
To date, neither main party has put forward a clear position on an "open skies" airline policy for Canada. It is obviously time to have that national debate.