Sheikh Abdullah comments on Canada flight row

"Escalation" in trade war is not down to the UAE, the Foreign Minister says on the reported ban on Canadian ministers flying on UAE carriers.

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ABU DHABI // The Minister of Foreign Affairs yesterday described a reported ban on Canadian ministers flying on UAE carriers as an "escalation" of the diplomatic row between the two states.

"I don't think it's a very smart decision," said Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed on the sidelines of a GCC foreign ministers' meeting.

The spat began after negotiations on more landing rights for the UAE carriers Etihad Airways and Emirates Airline collapsed a month ago.

The Canadian daily The Globe and Mail last week reported that the office of the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, had banned his Cabinet ministers from flying on the two carriers.

"The last thing I heard is that Canadian ministers cannot go on UAE carriers, so I think this is an escalation that came from Canada, not from the UAE," Sheikh Abdullah said.

Canada's foreign office has denied issuing such an order to its ministers. "There has been no such directive," said Melissa Lantsman, the director of communications for Lawrence Cannon, the Canadian minister of foreign affairs.

Canada's Blue Sky policy does not place restrictions on the travel of its citizens for official or unofficial purposes, she said. "All official and unofficial business is conducted based on the choices that exist without restriction - this includes [the] Emirates."

The UAE wants to increase flights between the two countries, but Canada's government has refused, despite five years of negotiations, saying the present number of flights is sufficient. The air transport agreement between Canada and the UAE allows Etihad and Emirates to fly up to three times a week to Canada.

Officials of Transport Canada say they are continuously monitoring the Canada-UAE market to ensure it is not under-served.

"The UAE is disappointed that despite intensive negotiations over the past five years the UAE and Canada have been unable to arrive at an agreement on expanding the number of flights between the two countries," Mohammed al Ghafli, the Ambassador to Canada, said last month.

He called the talks "protracted and frustrating", and said their failure would affect bilateral relations. The diplomatic row has resulted in Canada losing access to Camp Mirage, a military base near Dubai.

The UAE will also require Canadians to have visitor visas prior to arriving in the UAE from January 2, citing reciprocity with Canadian requirements. There are 27,000 Canadians living in the UAE, and the UAE is Canada's largest trading partner in the Middle East and North Africa, with US$1.5 billion (Dh5.5bn) in bilateral trade, according to the UAE Embassy in Ottawa.

"The restrictions on flights between Canada and Dubai, which are almost unique to anywhere else in the world where Emirates operates, have resulted in incredible unmet demand for direct passenger and cargo services," Emirates Airline said in a statement yesterday.

The statement sought to allay concerns that increased flights would pose a threat to Air Canada, the country's national carrier, and to prove that the Canada-UAE flight market is under-served.

It also addresses "myths" about the company, explaining that it is not subsidised by the Government.

Emirates flights between Canada and the UAE consistently average more than 90 per cent seat occupancy, the company said. The additional flights would represent 2.2 per cent of Air Canada's weekly departures - "hardly a level which would indicate that additional Emirates' flights pose a dire threat to the future of Air Canada".