By Bruce Campion-Smith http://www.thestar.com
In a land of superlatives — the biggest shopping mall, the tallest skyscraper — construction workers have been toiling in the desert to add one more: the world’s biggest airport.
That’s what Al Maktoum International Airport will be when it’s finished, a monstrous aerial hub with five runways and three sprawling terminals able to handle upwards of 160 million passengers a year.
All this for a country of five million people just slightly larger than New Brunswick.
It’s a dramatic testament to the aviation ambitions of this Arab nation — ambitions that have rankled Prime Minister Stephen Harper, put Air Canada on the defensive and triggered a diplomatic tiff that has cost Canada’s military a strategic staging post in the Middle East.
Right now, the new airport has just a single runway and a passenger terminal. But the plans, like much else in this country, are oversized, reflecting the nation’s strategy to grab a growing share of global air traffic and route it through its airports.
“Many people ask me why the Middle Eastern airports are investing so much in the construction and expansion of so many large airports in such a small geographic area,” said Paul Griffiths, the CEO of Dubai Airports in a speech last year. “Our competition is not local. It is the world market.”
There’s a lot riding on that ambition. A quarter of the country’s gross domestic product of $82 billion is pegged to aviation-related activity. According to Griffiths, fostering the sheikdom’s aviation sector is a “strategic imperative.”
Indeed, across town, at Dubai International Airport—where traffic was up 15 per cent last year — U.A.E.’s sky-high ambitions are even more apparent, notably in the massive double-decker Airbus A380s that move across the tarmac like lumbering whales in a pond of smaller fish.
Emirates, the national airline of Dubai, has ordered 90 of the big jets, able to carry some 500 passengers on flights as long as 15,000 kilometres, including the Dubai-Toronto route.
It’s that very route that has been the flashpoint in relations between U.A.E. and Canada. And it has laid bare the fact that the Conservative government’s free trade agenda doesn’t quite extend to the skies.
At the heart of the tensions is a 2001 agreement that restricts U.A.E.’s airlines to just six flights a week to Canada, currently split between Emirates and Etihad Airways. The two airlines, backed by the U.A.E. government, have been pressing for daily service into Toronto. Emirates would also like to launch service to western destinations like Vancouver and Calgary.
Supporters of the U.A.E.’s demands — and they include Ontario, western premiers, the City of Toronto and even some Conservative MPs — argue the extra flights would be an economic windfall spurring more tourists and business.
Air Canada, backed by the federal Conservatives, has opposed the move, fearing it will lose market share. Indeed, Government House leader and former transport minister John Baird has boldly warned that more Emirates flights would cost Canada “literally tends of thousands of jobs.”
“That’s why we said no,” Baird told the Commons in November, without specifying where those job losses would occur.
To truly understand the fight over access to Toronto, you have to first understand what happens in Frankfurt, where every morning Air Canada jets touch down after night flights from Canada. On-board are passengers going to destinations throughout the Middle East and South Asia. After switching planes in Frankfurt, they’ll be carried there by Air Canada’s Star Alliance partner Lufthansa — a lucrative partnership that benefits both airlines.
That’s traffic both airlines fear losing to Emirates if the extra flights to Toronto ever get the green light.
Not surprisingly, Emirates’ ambitious expansion plans — they have 148 wide-body jets on order, all aimed at the lucrative long-haul market —have run into turbulence not only in Canada but in Europe too, where Lufthansa is opposing a bid by Emirates to increase its flights to Germany.
In Canada, Emirates’ expansion has run up against Transport Canada’s “Blue Sky” policy, which purports to advocate open skies but in fact is a sham, said transportation expert David Gillen.
While Air Canada has long been privatized, he argues that federal bureaucrats and politicians protect the air carrier as if it is still a Crown corporation — even at the expense of consumers and the broader economy, which would get a boost from extra flights.
“All they are doing is trading industrial and tourism jobs for Air Canada jobs. There are all sorts of studies . . . that show the job losses as a result of the protectionist policies,” said Gillen, director of the Centre for Transportation Studies at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia.
His UBC colleague Tae Oum argues that Canada’s South Asian communities in particular are “paying the price” for Ottawa’s refusal to open up competition and choice. That’s because routing flights through Dubai to India and Pakistan can slice hours off a journey compared to routing them through Europe.
“It would be political scandal actually, if they knew it,” said Oum. “They are paying higher prices and going through inconvenient scheduling.”
Air Canada did not respond to a request for comment.
For now Emirates accepts the “umpire’s verdict” and doesn’t predict extra flights to Canada will be back on the table any time soon, said Andrew Parker, a senior vice-president with the airline.
But he says the airline was the victim of “overblown hyperbole,” notably around the allegation of widespread job losses, which he branded “extraordinary exaggeration.”
“It is very hard to find examples of where progressive sensible liberalization of air services has decimated any flag carrier,” he told the Star.
“It’s just modern competition. BlackBerry gets on and competes around the world with dozens of other phone and software providers as they should, but somehow in the world of aviation we live with this arcane Jurassic system of bilaterals,” Parker said.
“Where is the consumer interest in this whole debate? More competition, better choice, better service, lower prices,” he said.
Emirates’ global ambitions are most easily seen in its operations centre — “heart of the evil empire,” deadpans Parker — where a wall-sized screen depicts a world map and, on it, the position of each of its jets at that moment. Even during a midday lull, more than 100 planes are shown moving across the Atlantic, approaching Australia and clustering like ants between the Middle East and Asia.
It is this rapid growth in just a few years that has put Emirates in the crosshairs of so-called “legacy” carriers like Lufthansa, Air France and Air Canada, who fear losing their passengers to the relative newcomer.
Emirates is focused on what Parker calls the “new trade corridors of the world,” with emphasis on the Middle East, Africa and Indian subcontinent.
“How are people doing business between Canada and the Middle East, the Gulf, India, Africa going to get there? Via Europe is one option. But it’s not logical and it’s not as direct and convenient as it could be,” Parker said.