Friday, September 18, 2009

 

CAN'T WE "JETZ" GO?

The Prime-Minister's brief 36 hour visit to the USA provided several photo-ops for the folks back home but few tangible results on key areas of Canadian concern: Hardening of our mutual border; buy American provisions imposed by Congress; and Afghanistan.

Pretty much touted as the only significant achievement on the whirlwind visits to the White House, Capitol Hill and then on to New York; was a somewhat nebulous agreement so that Air Canada "Jetz" may continue to fly professional sports teams from city to city within the USA; a practice commonly known as "cabotage". In an unexpected turn of events, on September 4, the American Department of Transportation had banned Air Canada from the practice throwing the carrier's exclusive wholly owned subsidiary; "Jetz" into panic and chaos.

Though Prime Minister Harper is a devoted NHL fan and his love of hockey surely helped. The fix to the Air Canada malaise was more the doing of the Minister of Transport, John Baird; seconded by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lawrence Cannon: Both of whom (as is known in Ottawa circles) are adept at backroom arm twisting. It seems that there was a lot more than the practice of "cabotage" to the sudden surprising decision by U.S. Transport authorities to clip the Canadian bird's wings earlier in the month.

Lest I abuse of the birds and wings metaphor - I like to pigeon hole discussion points: First the background then the issue: For the uninitiated, Air Canada "Jetz" is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Montreal based Canadian flag carrier. It operates a fleet of five specially configured Airbus A-320 passenger jets exclusively for the high end charter business. In the case at hand, millionaire hockey playing members of the National Hockey League. Curious about how special the aircraft are? For starters, a regular Air Canada A-320 carries 146 passengers. A "Jetz" Airbus has 64 seats. "Jetz" has carried rock bands U-2, the Rolling Stones and several others on world and North American tours.

But - the main business of the charter carrier is professional sports teams. Its exclusive domain includes all six Canadian NHL franchises, the Toronto Raptors, the Boston Bruins and until the September 4th action from Washington was also about to include the Anaheim Ducks. And - Therein lay the problem! Legacy carriers, Delta, American, United, US Airways and several charter operatives south of the border have seen profits vanish and red ink flowing by the billions through the recessionary period. Predictions for this fall travel season are even worse.

Gary Bettman aside, the National Hockey League is a Canadian institution, and senior managers in most American franchises have connections to Canada. Our national carrier has been aggressive both in lobby efforts and in touting "Jetz" as the carrier of choice for NHL teams south of the border. When the U.S. Department of Transportation issued its edict against the carrier on September 4th, not only did it ice the deal with the Anaheim Ducks, but it froze confidential negotiations underway with the St. Louis Blues and the New Jersey Devils as well as an extended renewal deal with the Boston Bruins. Unprecedented pressure was being applied to transportation bureaucrats in Washington D.C. by airlines and their employee unions in the United States. Reflective of the American Congress desire to "Buy American", the Department of Transportation was only too happy to oblige and freeze the Canadian competitor all the way out of the USA.

When Ministers John Baird and Lawrence Canon were seized with the real motive behind Air Canada's clipped wings, the Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood, though himself a Republican, albeit one with the same Illinois connections as the President, relented to avoid embarrassing Barack Obama during Harper's short 45 minute visit to the Oval Office. Obama's retaliatory message was clear when he sent an unknown underling to greet Harper at the front door to the White House. Diplomatic niceties aside: Now you know! Surely Air Canada will happily oblige if the Conservatives need a campaign plane for the next election.

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