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U.S. rivals try to keep Air Canada's Washington plan from taking off

Rival airlines say giving Air Canada a coveted long-haul slot at Washington's Reagan airport would rob a U.S. city of a link to the capital.

JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail/JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver, you're no San Francisco – at least not in the eyes of U.S. airlines.

As Air Canada applies to launch new flights from British Columbia's most populous city to Washington, D.C., rival U.S. carriers are painting Lotusland as a small "local market" that is not on the same scale as the California destination.

The Canadian airline is seeking U.S. approval to introduce daily non-stop service between Vancouver and Reagan National Airport, backed by glowing letters of recommendation for Canada's West Coast, including one from B.C. Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom, who touts the ability to "ski, golf and sail on the same day," and its "remarkable dining."

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But six American rivals are objecting to Air Canada's plans, saying Vancouver would be merely a pit stop in the Canadian airline's plans to siphon traffic from the U.S. capital and send passengers to Asia, bypassing U.S. connections.

San Francisco International Airport is much busier than the B.C. terminal, said California-based Virgin America Inc., which is pushing for its San Francisco-Washington service and playing down Vancouver as a local market, compared with the Bay area's high-tech advantage with Silicon Valley.

"Building a stronger transportation link between downtown Washington, D.C., and the Bay area will enhance the opportunity to connect the Bay area's focus on innovation with leaders in Washington who are seeking to provide a competitive advantage in the marketplace for U.S. workers," Virgin America said in its regulatory filing.

Dallas-based Southwest Airlines Co. , which is pitching an Austin-Reagan route, argues that Air Canada is aiming for the transpacific market through the Vancouver hub to connect to Hong Kong, Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai and Tokyo – "not for the convenience of local travellers" in what the industry calls origin-and-destination traffic.

JetBlue Airways Corp. of New York also takes a shot, saying Vancouver's "local market is not large enough to support daily non-stop service" on Air Canada's proposed schedule. JetBlue, which deems the Vancouver market to be "insufficiently large," is advocating a new route between Washington and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Seattle-based Alaska Airlines Inc. is playing the patriotic card. "It is difficult to justify elevating a non-U.S. city over a host" of American communities, said the airline, which submits that the best tickets to ride would be flights from Portland, Ore., and San Diego to Washington.

A deserving U.S. city would be deprived of prized non-stop service to and from Reagan airport if Air Canada's application is approved, Alaska Airlines said. The U.S. Department of Transportation can authorize only four daily long-haul round-trips at Reagan to new entrants or airlines with limited access.

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The other two U.S. carriers vying for the Reagan slots are Frontier Airlines Inc. and Sun Country Airlines.

Air Canada said that as the lone foreign applicant, it would provide valuable access to "Vancouver, the commercial heart of Western Canada" and increase choices for connections within Canada and to Asia.

Larry Berg, president of the Vancouver Airport Authority, provided a gushing endorsement of the region: "The largest city in Western Canada – and a vibrant financial and commercial hub, including being home to Canada's largest and busiest port."

In its submission to U.S. Department of Transportation, Air Canada envisages deploying 120-seat Airbus A319 aircraft, with daily flights leaving Washington in the morning and Vancouver in the afternoon.

"Vancouver is the most important point in Air Canada's Canadian network that lacks non-stop access to the D.C. market," the airline said, proudly noting that the city hosted the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

The list of superlatives, however, has failed to impress U.S. carriers competing for new takeoff and landing slots at Reagan, an air terminal that's handy to downtown Washington and preferred by most business travellers over Dulles International Airport in suburban Virginia.

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About the Author

Brent Jang is a business reporter in The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau. He joined the Globe in 1995. His former positions include transportation reporter in Toronto, energy correspondent in Calgary and Western columnist for Report on Business. He holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of Alberta, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of The Gateway student newspaper. Mr. More

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