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Air CanadaTimothy Stake

Air Canada plans to expand its transatlantic presence next year, taking advantage of an aviation pact between Canada and the European Union.

"This new agreement opens up a realm of new commercial opportunities for Air Canada throughout the EU," Air Canada chief operating officer Duncan Dee said in a statement Friday.

The Montreal-based carrier will also benefit from a four-company joint venture - dubbed Atlantic Plus-Plus - involving Continental Airlines Corp. , United Airlines Inc. , Deutsche Lufthansa AG and Air Canada.

Continental recently joined the Star Alliance, while the other three already were part of the group of global carriers.

The Canada-EU deal is a more important deal now than it would have been a year ago, when a tentative agreement was announced, an industry insider said Friday, adding that Air Canada will be pursuing a bigger international push in 2010.

Canada and the EU are heralding the aviation deal as a breakthrough because it replaces a patchwork of bilateral deals signed over the years between Canada and 19 of 27 EU members.

Mr. Dee said he's pleased to have all 27 EU member states now on board.

"Air Canada has long been an advocate of an enhanced aviation agreement between Canada and Europe," he said. "We applaud the governments of Canada and the EU for concluding this agreement that achieves balanced benefits for both parties."

The EU also said it's hoping to spur new air routes by allowing more carriers to fly between Canada and Europe.

Versant Partners Inc. analyst Cameron Doerksen said major transatlantic routes are already well served.

William Clark, a Toronto-based aviation lawyer, also had a subdued reaction, saying the eight EU members brought into the fold aren't high on airlines' list of priorities for new routes between Canada and Europe. Those eight EU markets are: Cyprus, Estonia, Malta, Luxembourg, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

The Canadian Airports Council congratulated Ottawa for easing restrictions with the EU.

"As we move through the steps toward a full Open Skies agreement, this new air agreement will set an example for carrier access, safety, security and passenger mobility," CAC president Jim Facette said in a statement, adding that passengers will have more choices.

The number of visitors from Europe entering Canada fell 10 per cent to 2.03 million in first 10 months of this year, compared with the same period last year, according to Statistics Canada. The most recent Statscan data for outbound traffic also show a travel decline to key European destinations. For instance, an estimated 315,800 Canadians visited Britain in the second quarter, down 7 per cent from the same period last year.