France has given the green light to Emirates Airline and Etihad Airways to increase flights to Paris and other French cities by more than 60 per cent, despite lobbying efforts from Air France to block the expansion.
The UAE airlines' allotments, under the UAE-France bilateral air agreement concluded on Thursday, has risen to 60 weekly flights, up from the previous 35 flights a week. They represent an important victory for the UAE's General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA), which is also waging long-running campaigns to sign similar agreements in Germany and Canada despite opposition from those countries' flag carriers.
The new agreement gives the UAE airlines additional weekly frequencies into Paris, and also more weekly flights to provincial airports such as Lyon, Marseille, Bordeaux, Nice and Toulouse.
The UAE airlines and Qatar Airways have invested billions of dollars in new aircraft to carry out rapid international expansions in recent years.
Their growth threatens to divert lucrative international traffic from airlines such as Lufthansa, Air Canada and Air France. In response, Pierre-Henri Gourgeon, the chief executive of Air France, has called on his government for protection. "Europe is at the crossroads of international air travel, and this is a role we need to value and defend," Mr Gourgeon said in October. "We need a strategy that gives us a chance to resist."
Saif Mohammed al Suwaidi, the director general of the GCAA, said he was pleased the negotiations were successful amid the charged political environment.
"People had been expecting, due to the statements from Air France last year, that this round of consultation would fail, because the French government would adopt the point of view of Air France," he said. "But the French government made us an offer and we accepted it."
The new landing rights will gradually be increased between now and 2014, Mr al Suwaidi said.
Andrew Parker, the senior vice president of international affairs at Emirates, said the new air connections should help the French economy.
"Despite Air France's vigorous defence about not wanting more competition, and its well stated views on Gulf carriers, the French Government's position was more about finding common ground and promoting growth. It is in France's national interest to boost aviation, tourism and traffic," Mr Parker said.
France is a major ally and trading partner of the UAE, supplying Airbus planes to airlines and Dassault fighter jets to the Air Force. As a sign of the strong ties, France in 2009 opened a military base in Abu Dhabi, and in December, the UAE was reported to have resumed negotiations with Dassault to buy 60 Rafale fighter jets in a proposed multibillion-euro deal.
The GCAA is pursuing more than two dozen bilateral negotiations this year with foreign governments to pave the way for further expansions of UAE airlines, Mr al Suwaidi said, including with India and Pakistan.
The rise of the UAE as a global air hub is reshaping the global aviation landscape, including the long-held dominance of Germany's Lufthansa. Emirates has supplanted the German carrier for the title of world's largest international airline by capacity.
The Berlin mayor Harald Wolf said this month that although his city government would welcome international flights from Emirates as a way to stimulate trade, tourism and investment, these plans were being stymied by lobbying efforts from Lufthansa. "The difficulty is the federal government. They are very restrictive," he said. "They have had a very strong lobbying from Lufthansa not to strengthen Emirates."
In Canada, Etihad and Emirates are allowed only six weekly flights, and the failure to receive more frequencies despite five years of talks has spurred a fully fledged diplomatic crisis between the UAE and Canada. "They [Canada] should decide how to get along with us on this very sensitive issue," said Mr al Suwaidi.
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