A dispute between Canada and the United States over charter airline flights is causing havoc for sports teams across North America and could disrupt the coming NHL season.
Transportation officials in both countries have banned charter airlines carrying sports teams from making multiple stops, something that had been allowed for years. If the bans remain in place, NHL teams will have difficulty playing back-to-back games in the United States or Canada and could be forced to return to their home country between each game. The ban also affects the Toronto Blue Jays and the Toronto Raptors.
The impact is already being felt.
Miami Air International, a Florida company that provides charter services for the Blue Jays and five U.S.-based NHL teams including the Pittsburgh Penguins, was told this week to cancel nearly 60 flights to Canada in September for NHL preseason games. The company must also drop four Jays trips.
Dallas-based Paradigm Air Carriers, which flies the Dallas Stars and Phoenix Coyotes, has to cancel six flights for September. Air Canada, which serves several teams including the Raptors and all six Canadian NHL teams, has been told to drop all team contracts.
The bans "represent a potentially big problem for our teams," said Richard Peddie, chief executive of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Toronto Maple Leafs and Raptors.
"This is truly an unfortunate situation at the moment," said Ricky Olczyk, the Edmonton Oilers' assistant general manager. "But we remain hopeful that this matter will be resolved in an expeditious fashion."
Ross Fisher, president of Miami Air, said teams will have to find a second carrier, at an added cost, or fly back and forth across the border. Canadian teams, he noted, will be hit hardest.
"You've got a lot of hockey teams up there. How many of their games are played in the States versus Canada?"
For years, sports teams had been given special consideration by both countries. Foreign airlines are generally not allowed to move passengers between domestic cities in either country, something known as "cabotage". Sports team charters were given some exemptions to those rules because of the nature of their operations. But teams had to travel together and could not pick up or drop off passengers along the way.
The current dispute began last month after the U.S. Department of Transport audited Air Canada's flight services for the Boston Bruins and the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks during the 2008-09 season. The audit allegedly found Air Canada engaged in cabotage on several flights. On Aug. 11, U.S. officials told Air Canada to stop "accepting any future such business" and "take steps to cancel any such current contracts."
That prompted a sharp rebuke from federal Transport Minister John Baird. In a letter dated Aug. 14 to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Baird called the action against Air Canada "an unprecedented interference in the operations of the marketplace" and he noted that it came just before the start of the NHL season. This week Baird ordered a similar ban against U.S. carriers.
Baird "has tried to reach out to his U.S. counterpart, asking him to review, to change, their position," said Transport Canada spokesman Patrick Charette. "Because they haven't so far, [Baird]directed [officials]to prohibit similar programs here."
Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said the airline is disappointed by the U.S. action, but the company hopes the situation can be resolved. "Talks are going on."