Russian air-space spat delays your luggage
Air Canada flights between Canada and Asia bring passengers today, bags days later
Thursday, November 13, 2003
Of the 100 or so passengers who arrived in Beijing, more than 70 did not get their luggage and received no explanation or warning from Air Canada.
Travellers on flights between Canada and India face longer journeys and delayed luggage arrivals because of a dispute over the use of Russian airspace for a new Air Canada service to New Delhi.
The dispute has also affected the airline's service to and from China.
Talks last week in Montreal between aviation authorities and foreign affairs officials from Russia and Canada failed to resolve the diplomatic and commercial issues that prompted the dispute.
No new talks are scheduled.
The dispute began after Russia refused to let Air Canada use its airspace for its Toronto-New Delhi flights and for its flights to Beijing.
In retaliation, Canada banned Aeroflot, the Russian national carrier, from using its airspace to fly to destinations in the U.S. and reduced the Moscow to Toronto flights from four a week to two.
Vancouver businessman Joseph Kasper said he didn't know the issue would translate into major problems for him as he left for Beijing on Saturday.
Kasper said the flight took longer than it was supposed to because Air Canada had to take a circuitous route around Russia airspace. In addition, the longer flight meant more fuel had to be carried and Air Canada had to compensate for the heavier plane by leaving two-thirds of the passengers' luggage behind.
"It took us three days to get our luggage," Kasper said Thursday in a phone interview from Beijing. "I had meetings scheduled. I wore the same underwear for three days. I went back to the airport three times before I finally got our luggage."
Of the 100 or so passengers who arrived in Beijing, Kasper said more than 70 did not get their luggage and got no explanation or advance warning from Air Canada that their suitcases would not be on the same flight.
Air Canada spokeswoman Angela Mah said Wednesday the airline may begin introducing stops to allow for refuelling and changing crews at a European airport, such as Paris, because it can no longer fly over Russia.
Air Canada hopes to put the new stopovers in place for December and January, when holiday bookings are heavier.
"Currently, we continue to operate daily non-stop flights from Toronto to Delhi, albeit over a longer, less efficient North Atlantic routing via western Europe and through western Asia to India," Mah said.
"This longer routing adds approximately one hour of flying time and restricts the number of passengers and amount of cargo that can be carried."
Flights from Vancouver to Beijing will take an extra 90 minutes. It is too early, according to Mah, to know what financial or commercial impact the longer flights will have on the airline and passengers.
Because of the dispute, Aeroflot must also fly longer routes to western destinations in Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco to avoid going over Canadian airspace. The airline's daily flights to New York are not affected.
In Bangkok, during the APEC conference in October, Prime Minister Jean Chretien raised the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with both leaders promising to make it a priority.
But talks between Canadian foreign affairs officials and Russian transport ministry delegates in Paris and Montreal failed to resolve the matter.
"It happens sometimes that sides disagree on issues and we hope this one will be resolved soon," said Alexei Lisenkov, press attaché for the Russian Embassy in Ottawa. "It is an issue for aviation authorities from Canada and Russia to work out."
Lisenkov said Russia's position is that Air Canada does not have the right to use Russian airspace to fly from Toronto to New Delhi.
The new service, which began in mid-October, shaves three hours off the flight because it didn't require a stopover in Europe or Asia. Air Canada touted this flight as the only non-stop passage to Delhi from North America.
Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Jenny Chen said no further talks between Canadian and Russian officials are planned at this time. Airspace issues between the countries are covered in a bilateral agreement signed in 2000 called the Air Agreement.
"This is definitely a high priority for the department. There were intense negotiations last week in Montreal, but those have come and gone," Chen said Wednesday.
Disputes leading to the suspension of air space use are rare in Canada, according to Chen. Under the Air Agreement, Russia and Canada must first resolve any disputes through diplomatic means. If that fails, a three-member arbitration board will be called in to handle the matter.
Warren Everson, vice president of policy and strategic planning with the Air Transport Association of Canada, said the exchange of air rights between countries is both a diplomatic and commercial issue.
"Countries exchange air rights, then the two carriers involved talk about operational issues," Everson said. "Mostly what it demonstrates is both countries have the power to damage each other. When countries deprive each other of air rights, it's not something that is wandered into lightly. It can be costly and incredibly disruptive."
Wanda Warner, a spokeswoman for the International Air Transport Association, said the global impact of the dispute is minimal for now.
"It is to the detriment of travellers and shippers whenever airspace is restricted in this manner because they are deprived convenience and the most affordable fares and rates," she said.