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Landing rights spat has no bearing on C Series sale, Qatar CEO says

Qatar Airways wants to broaden flight service across Canada, but the airline's CEO says the Canadian government and the airline industry are putting up barriers to the planned expansion.

In Montreal on Thursday to mark the launch of thrice-weekly Doha-Montreal flights, outspoken Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker took aim at Air Canada, saying its protestations over allegedly unfair practices by state-subsidized Gulf carriers are "a tactic to stifle competition."

Qatar is keen to win more landing rights in Canada and Air Canada has nothing to fear from foreign carriers, Mr. Al Baker said at a news conference.

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The airline remains interested in Bombardier Inc.'s all-new C Series jetliner but has had to put off placing an order, he added. The carrier is very impressed with the 300 C Series model, the larger of two C Series models, and would consider an order of between 15 and 25 planes, he said.

Qatar had been widely expected to announce an order at last week's Paris Air Show after months of contemplation, but did not do so.

Issues over engine maintenance cost guarantees from C Series engine supplier Pratt & Whitney have been resolved but Qatar has been overwhelmed by more pressing aircraft procurement concerns that are not related to the 100- to 145-seat C Series, Mr. Al Baker said.

In addition, Qatar is also mulling an order for a number of A319neo models from Bombardier competitor Airbus, he said.

Mr. Al Baker brushed aside suggestions that Qatar is holding off on a C Series order – which would provide a big boost to Montreal-based Bombardier's sales drive – as a bargaining tactic to win more landing rights at Canadian airports from Ottawa.

"We don't use commercial issues" as a lever to win concessions from governments, he said flatly.

But he also took a shot at Ottawa regarding the fact that Qatar has so far only managed to get three landing slots – in Montreal – but would like many more, including some at Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto airports.

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"It was very difficult to get this meagre three flights a week to Canada. I think that Canadians were very generous," he said sarcastically.

An official at Transport Canada said in an e-mail message that the 2010 agreement between the two countries "responds to the needs of the Canada-Qatar travel market."

Officials in Transport Minister Denis Lebel's office said Thursday it would not be possible to respond to Mr. Al Baker's comments on such short notice.

Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said in an e-mail that there is no need to add capacity on Canada-to-Qatar routes.

"Simply put, the current bilateral arrangements allow for more than adequate capacity to carry all point-to-point traffic between our two countries."

Air Canada has been vocal in the past about Gulf carriers allegedly taking away 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.

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It argues that connecting points at Frankfurt and London will suffer if Middle East carriers are allowed to aggressively expand in Canada.

So far, the fight over landing rights has centred on state-owned Emirates airline. The feud escalated last year when Ottawa refused demands by Emirates and Etihad Airways of Abu Dhabi for new landing rights at Toronto's Pearson International Airport.

The United Arab Emirates responded by ousting Canadian soldiers in November from Camp Mirage, a staging base near Dubai that had served for nine years as a supply hub for the Afghanistan war. In November, the conflict escalated when the UAE imposed visa fees of up to $1,000 on Canadian visitors.

Emirates and Etihad currently have thrice-weekly frequency out of Toronto and have been lobbying the federal government for daily frequency on the routes.

Mr. Al Baker said Qatar – which has 102 destinations worldwide – is seeking to expand to daily service out of Montreal.

Montreal is its first Canadian gateway. In the U.S. it has regular service to New York, Houston and Washington.

"We hope to operate more frequently in this beautiful country of yours," said Mr. Al Baker.

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About the Author
Quebec Business Correspondent

Bertrand has been covering Quebec business and finance since 2000. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2000, he was the Toronto-based national business correspondent for Southam News. He has a B.A. from McGill University and a Bachelor of Applied Arts from Ryerson. More

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