As Etihad Airways blazes a new Silk Road for the global aviation industry, the Persian Gulf carrier warns that Canada is missing out.
Etihad is seeking to increase its Toronto-Abu Dhabi flights to daily service from its current three round-trips a week.
Travel demand is brisk, with the average Etihad trip in and out of Toronto having more than 80 per cent of its seats filled with paying customers, Etihad chief executive officer James Hogan said in an interview.
Expanding the Toronto-Abu Dhabi route to daily service would improve the carrier's "efficiencies," and provide consumers with greater choice, he said.
The United Arab Emirates, on Etihad's behalf, must first obtain permission for extra landing rights from the Canadian government. If the UAE is able to secure rights from Ottawa for expanded service, Etihad will boost flights to and from Toronto, and then aim to add flights to one other Canadian destination, either Vancouver, Calgary or Montreal.
"We provide an important air bridge," Mr. Hogan said. "What I'm talking about is a new Silk Road" - modern air routes that funnel passenger traffic through Middle East hubs instead of European terminals.
Industry experts say Abu Dhabi-based Etihad will need a huge dose of patience, especially with relations souring recently between Ottawa and the United Arab Emirates. Last year, Ottawa rejected requests from the UAE for new landing rights in Canada for Emirates airline and Etihad, prompting the UAE to evict the Canadian Forces from Camp Mirage, a Persian Gulf base that served as a crucial jump-off point to Afghanistan.
The political friction increased after the UAE slapped on visa requirements for Canadian visitors last December, but Emirates and Etihad remain committed to persuading the Canadian government to allow expansion, though the process could take several years.
An Emirates spokesman said Thursday that the Dubai-based carrier "will eventually re-engage with Ottawa to demonstrate the economic benefits of enhanced competition and choice."
Emirates has offered three round-trips a week on its Toronto-Dubai non-stop service since launching the route in October, 2007. Qatar Airways will begin its Montreal-Doha service on June 29, also scheduling three flights a week.
Etihad launched flights to Canada in October, 2005, via Brussels, and started non-stop service between Toronto and Abu Dhabi in June, 2007.
"It's important that we continue to make people in government aware of Etihad the business," Mr. Hogan said. "I'm very keen to get more in regard to traffic rights, but until they come, I have to work with what I have."
Air Canada has sounded the alarm about Gulf carriers unfairly poaching global traffic as they fly passengers to the Middle East and then transfer them onto connecting flights to growth markets in India, China and southeast Asia. Air Canada argues that its connecting points at Frankfurt and London's Heathrow Airport will suffer if Middle East carriers grow aggressively in Canada.
While Emirates has grown steadily since 1985 to become one of the world's largest airlines, Etihad is carving a niche as a "mid-sized international carrier" that's geographically blessed by Abu Dhabi's role as a "great connector," Mr. Hogan said.
"We're very keen to move to daily on Toronto, and then after that, see what other secondary cities to Canada that we could fly to," said Mr. Hogan, who will be pressing Etihad's case in a speech Friday to the Toronto Board of Trade. "Going to a minimum of daily is key."
He said Ottawa shouldn't fear Etihad, arguing that there will be economic spinoffs in Canada if the state-owned carrier is allowed to expand.
"Abu Dhabi is the capital, it's a destination in its own right and it's a great transfer point," he said. "I'm taking advantage of my hub, where I can fly non-stop from Abu Dhabi to Sydney, New York, Chicago, Toronto, Moscow, London, Frankfurt and Paris."
Etihad operates the Boeing 777 on the Toronto-Abu Dhabi route, featuring 28 seats in business class and 384 seats in the economy cabin.
"The Gulf is becoming the new crossroad for the world," said Mr. Hogan, who was born and raised in Australia. "Within two hours of arriving in Abu Dhabi, we can connect you to destinations like Oman, Bahrain. To all the Middle Eastern capitals - to Cairo, to Beirut. We can take you into India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, down into southeast Asia."
Etihad, founded in 2003 by the Abu Dhabi government, now flies to 66 destinations worldwide. The carrier also has numerous partnerships with other airlines to take advantage of connecting passengers.