Israel, Canada in air war of words

TORONTO, Nov. 28 (JTA) — Canada and Israel are engaged in a heated dispute about air traffic that erupted after a 12-year-old air agreement between the two countries expired earlier this month.

El Al wants to drop its twice-weekly Montreal-to-Tel-Aviv flights because it says they are no longer profitable. It also wants to end Air Canada’s monopoly on flights departing from Toronto to Israel, says Stanley Morais, a spokesman for the airline in Toronto.

El Al officials have watched with increasing dissatisfaction as Air Canada has popularized the use of Toronto instead of New York as a North American gateway.

Whereas connecting passengers have to switch airport terminals in New York, which often involves a 30-minute taxi or shuttle ride, passengers meeting a connecting flight at Pearson International Airport in Toronto only have to walk from one airport gate to another.

“What we’re requesting is some sort of equal advantage between competitors,” Morais said. “We want the freedom to take traffic across the border, just like they do. Air Canada has developed what is almost a monopoly situation, and we think that’s unfair.”

When the bilateral air agreement expired, Israel informed Canada that it would permit Air Canada to fly to Israel only four times each week, instead of the seven times that had been permitted until Nov. 9, when the air agreement expired.

But Air Canada’s winter schedule, based on seven weekly flights, is already heavily booked, according to airline spokesperson Laura Cook.

In response, Canada sent Israel a letter in which it indicated that, should Israel limit Air Canada’s landing rights in Tel Aviv, Canada would withdraw permission for El Al to overfly Canadian airspace.

El Al officials were stunned by Canada’s tactics, which they characterized as the blatant escalation of a commercial row into a diplomatic dispute.

“With a country that you’re friends with, you don’t do such things,” Morais said. “You don’t tell them that they can’t travel through your air space. It’s not done.”

El Al operates 20 flights weekly into the United States, mostly into New York. All of these flights routinely overfly Canadian airspace, saving on fuel consumption and reducing flight time by about half an hour.

The Israelis quickly set up a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien last week in Istanbul, while both were attending the summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The two leaders agreed to maintain the status quo until their respective transportation ministers could meet to iron out the difficulties and set the wheels in motion for a new agreement.

Canadian Transportation Minister David Collenette and his Israeli counterpart, Yitzhak Mordechai, are scheduled to meet in Washington on Dec. 3 in an attempt to resolve the issue.

“Our position is that Canada does not intend to take action on overflights as long as Israel does not cancel Air Canada flights,” said Francois Lasalle, a spokesman with the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs.

“We’re pleased that Israel has agreed to temporarily continue Air Canada’s daily flights until Dec. 3. At that time, we intend to take every opportunity to meet to discuss the situation with the Israelis and to reach a mutually agreeable solution,” he said.

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