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Greg Wyshynski

Air Canada ban by U.S. leaves NHL teams angry, panicked

Greg Wyshynski
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"Cabotage." It sounds like a Beastie Boys B-side, but it's actually a term used in aviation to describe the rights of an airline to fly passengers between domestic destinations in a country. It's also at the heart of a breaking story in Canada that has NHL and government officials outraged after the U.S. Department of Transportation banned Air Canada's charter fleet from flying between U.S. cities, according to the National Post:

The sticking point is an eight-year-old exemption that had allowed sports and celebrity charters to make several pit stops in American cities. Under existing open skies agreements, regular Canadian airline flights can only visit one U.S. city before returning.

Here's the deal: The D.C.-based Air Line Pilots Association initiated this action from the Obama Administration by complaining that Air Canada charter flights were transporting passengers to and from U.S. cities who weren't also transported to or from Canada, according to these findings from the U.S. Department of Transportation (.pdf). The ALPA claimed this practice was a violation of U.S. Code Title 49, which "prohibits the transportation of persons ... between points of the U.S. in a foreign civil aircraft."

For example, an NHL team would charter an Air Canada flight to a U.S. city, pick up more passengers in that city for whatever reason, and then fly to the next U.S. city where the team would play. The U.S. DOT said it found instances of that occurring after an audit of Air Canada charter programs from the Boston Bruins and the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks. The Bush Administration last year allowed the Bruins to fly Air Canada charter flights for the 2008-09 season.

Because of that audit, and because professional sports teams on the road can't predict when they'll need to add passengers to their flights, the U.S. government ruled on Monday that Air Canada's sports charter flights can fly from Canada to U.S. cities, but won't be able to fly between U.S. cities. From the ALPA:

ALPA began to work on overturning DOT's decision to permit Air Canada to carry the Bruins immediately after the department issued it last year. ALPA then teamed up with industry partners to build the argument for the DOT that the charter flights -- which at one point included 18 consecutive segments between U.S. cities over a two month period -- directly violated U.S. Code Title 49.

Needless to say, this decision has made Canadian teams and the NHL about as happy as a claustrophobic businessman who poured hot coffee on his lap while seated next to a crying child in coach. So, in summary, pretty darn upset.

From the National Post:

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly warns the charter ban will create a complicated "patchwork" of travel that could "wreck havoc" with the oncoming hockey schedule, including early league games in Europe, as teams scramble to book flights under the new rules.

"It's potentially a very significant impact," Mr. Daly said Friday. "It's crazy and very destabilizing to our business. We're operating on a long-standing interpretation and for it to change overnight on the eve of our season is creating a huge problem for us."

Air Canada executive vice president Duncan Dee predicted the ruling will create "chaos" for teams shuttling across the border. "It's extremely messy for both American and Canadian teams," he said. It was a unilateral action imposed without consultation or Air Canada being able to defend itself. It's obvious the U.S. Department of Transportation doesn't watch hockey."

(Is this about Obama not having been to a Capitals game yet? Sheesh, he's going to meet the Pittsburgh Penguins next week; baby steps ...)

The Globe & Mail has a very good review of the issues and plenty of reaction from around the League as well:

The bans "represent a potentially big problem for our teams," said Richard Peddie, chief executive of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Toronto Maple Leafs and Raptors.

"This is truly an unfortunate situation at the moment," said Ricky Olczyk, the Edmonton Oilers' assistant general manager. "But we remain hopeful that this matter will be resolved in an expeditious fashion."

Ross Fisher, president of Miami Air, said teams will have to find a second carrier, at an added cost, or fly back and forth across the border. Canadian teams, he noted, will be hit hardest. "You've got a lot of hockey teams up there. How many of their games are played in the States versus Canada?"

The Globe also points out that this isn't just about Air Canada:

Miami Air International, a Florida company that provides charter services for the Blue Jays and five U.S.-based NHL teams including the Pittsburgh Penguins, was told this week to cancel nearly 60 flights to Canada in September for NHL preseason games.

Naturally, this decision and the subsequent coverage of it has led to immediate anti-U.S. and anti-Obama sentiment on some hockey message boards and newspaper comment threads. It is a bit of a stunner, no question. So why is it happening?

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The ALPA obviously has its agenda and loyalty to its membership. The U.S. DOT has a commitment to following the law, and federal regulations clearly show that Air Canada's charter exemptions weren't in keeping with the spirit of that law.

The most enlightening thing we've read about this dispute was in the forums for AVCanada.ca, an aviation site. The thread began back on Aug. 12, well before this became a hockey story, and the dialogue provides as least some semblance of balance as to why this "cabotage" situation is an important one for U.S. officials.

Again, it's a message board, and we have no idea who the posters are; but the sense we had after combing through the thread was that the laws are in place to prevent foreign airlines from providing local service, undercutting domestic carriers in everything from airfare to wages.

It's all just another big, bloated hockey business story in a summer that's seen too many of them. But more than that, it's another uncomfortable U.S. vs. Canada dispute -- and lord knows we've had enough of that this summer, too.

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