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Emirates ups the Ante

It is rare for time to stand still at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, but the arrival of Emirates’ inaugural A380 service to Canada achieved just that.


July 28, 2009
By David Carr

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It is rare for time to stand still at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, but the arrival of Emirates’ inaugural A380 service to Canada achieved just that. Thousands of airport employees and spectators crowded into every vantage point and stood atop idle ramp equipment to watch the double-decked behemoth descend gracefully to earth. It was a sense of occasion not experienced at the airport since the Concorde first visited Toronto in 1983.

A380Landing  
Emirates CEO Timothy Clark is confident that Toronto can support a daily A380 and is also anxious to add Calgary and Vancouver to its growing international route network.

 

Following cameo appearances in Vancouver in 2006 and Montreal in 2007, the A380 took centre stage at Pearson with its operator, Emirates, offering three-times-weekly, non-stop service to the unlikely destination of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). But for how long? The A380 was recently withdrawn from Emirates’ daily New York run because of soft demand. The substitution freed up aircraft for both Pearson and Bangkok, while raising questions over how Toronto can succeed where New York failed, especially if Emirates is cleared to operate daily.

“We brought the A380 to New York around the time Wall Street collapsed,” Timothy Clark, Emirates’ CEO told Wings. “The market there went south. Toronto keeps heading north.” To illustrate the point, Emirates reports that the A380 is booked near capacity for the first four months, with a half-year waiting list for cargo space.

Clark is confident that Toronto can support a daily A380 and even mused about adding a second Boeing 777. The airline is also anxious to add Calgary and Vancouver to its growing international route network. “Given the size of its oil industry, Calgary is an ideal route for Emirates,” he added.

Even so, Transport Canada has put the brakes on additional services. Etihad Airways, based in the neighbouring emirate of Abu Dhabi, operates three flights a week to Toronto from the UAE capital. The seven emirates have a combined population of approximately 4.5 million, roughly equal to the Greater Toronto Area. Etihad would also like to increase its Toronto service to daily, but Transport Canada says six flights a week between the two airlines is sufficient, noting that additional flights could harm Air Canada and its Star Alliance partners, a position that runs counter to Ottawa’s Blue Sky policy to liberalize global air services.

Transport Canada’s pos-ition is a return to the bad ole days of the 1970s and ’80s when it was government policy to concentrate foreign airlines in Montreal, by blocking access to Toronto. It also sends a signal to airport authorities that ponied up over $1.2 billion in rent payments to the government last year that airlines trump airport revenues. The Greater Toronto Airports Authority estimates that increased flights to the UAE would generate an additional $3.2 million in airport revenues and create more than 500 jobs.

“The federal government is turning into a nanny state whose decisions are increasingly detrimental to the economic growth of Toronto,” said Kyle Rae, a local councillor who heads up the city’s influential economic development committee.

Clearly there is something larger at play here. Compared with service to other countries, Emirates’ Canadian operation looks like small change that slipped down the seat cushions. Of the 100 destinations the carrier serves worldwide, almost all receive at least one flight a day, including 98 flights a week to five cities in the U.K., 63 a week to four cities in Australia and 28 a week to two cities in New Zealand (via Australia).

It is an aggressive business model that leaves the airline vulnerable to accusations of predatory pricing and capacity dumping by Air Canada and others. The chairman of Air France proposed inspecting Emirates’ books while KLM has wondered aloud how the airline will cover the US$18 billion bill for an eye-popping 58 A380s. The A380 represents a fraction of the US$58 billion in aircraft Emirates has on order, including more 777-300s and 70 Airbus A350s.

“The fact that a tiny, tiny little city like Dubai can actually justify an airline the size of Emirates is a little risky,” Stelios Haji-loannou, the founder of U.K. discount airline easyJet told Associated Press soon after Dubai announced the launch of a state-owned low-cost airline.

At a meeting of the International Air Transport Association in Kuala Lumpur last June, Air Canada and Air New Zealand renewed attacks on the so-called big three Gulf airlines – Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways.

“Let [Emirates] fly 100 times a day into Canada if they want, but only flying customers from Canada to Dubai and not connecting to every other market on the planet,” ACE Aviation Holdings chair Robert Milton told the gathering.

It is an odd position for an airline executive to take given that international transfers are the core business of industry alliances like Star and oneworld. According to Airports Council International, airline alliances carry approximately two-thirds of international passengers at the top 10 airports ranked by international traffic.

Clark takes the criticisms in stride, sounding like the president of a low-cost airline up against the “legacy carriers.” “We’re not in the business of flying just 50 passengers and we are not diverting traffic away from Air Canada, which doesn’t fly to Dubai or anywhere in the Middle East. We are building a market where there wasn’t one before.” A claim disputed by Air New Zealand’s chief executive, who told Abu Dhabi’s The National newspaper that services from the Middle East had created very little new traffic.

Clark is also critical of what he has described as a “lunatic” price war, complaining to reporters at the Paris Air Show that one “major Asian carrier has introduced fares from the West coast of America to India that I’m surprised would cover the cost of catering.”

Depending on the time of year, approximately 50 per cent of Emirates’ Canadian market is transfer, meaning that the airline is using Dubai’s efficient, passenger-friendly, 24-hour airport and extensive Mid-East, Asian and African networks to draw from the larger Star Alliance, perhaps exposing a fault line in the alliance business model.

Clark uses Africa as an example. “The legacy carriers overlook Africa or only fly there when they feel like it. We fly to 14 cities in Africa, which are accessible through our Dubai hub. That’s Air Canada’s problem, unless you are a lead partner in the alliance you are handcuffed.”

ETDa346Cline  
Emirates competitor Etihad Airways, based in the neighbouring emirate of Abu Dhabi, operates three flights a week to Toronto from the UAE capital.

 

Emirates arrived on the scene in 1988, with two leased aircraft serving regional trading partners. As the oil-starved Dubai emirate positioned itself as a recreational playground, global business centre and international crossroads, Emirates fortunes soared alongside its base. The wind has gone out of Dubai’s economic sails, dampening its once red hot real estate market and forcing the city-state to ask for help from oil and gas rich Abu Dhabi that would make some Canadian bailouts look like penny poker.

Emirates has not escaped unscathed from the downturn. While posting its 21st straight year of profit, earnings were down 71 per cent leaving analysts to speculate that some of its A380 order will be deferred. It is estimated that Middle East carriers will lose US$900 million this year for their sins. But what sins are they? Just as WestJet, Southwest and easyJet have used greater efficiency and a lower cost structure to challenge legacy carriers at the back end of the cabin in their own backyard, Emirates and others have challenged those same airlines at the front end of the airplane and over a larger playing field.

Still, the airline is open to attack. It is a state-owned carrier whose stakeholder controls the airport and regulator – game, set and match. Privatization would reduce the sting, but the environment is identical to Canada’s before the privatization of Air Canada in 1987 and the commercialization of airports. (Would the Air Canada / Canadian merger have played out differently had predecessor CP Air not been restricted to only 25 per cent of Air Canada’s domestic capacity prior to 1979?).

Emirates is also making an impression in global marketing at cultural events and on the field of play. The number of sporting events showing the Fly Emirates logo reads like the pages of Sports Illustrated, and includes Formula One racing, the America’s World Cup, England’s Premier League Soccer, next year’s World Cup in South Africa and this year’s Roger’s Cup tennis tournament in Toronto and Montreal. Can local hockey rinks be far behind?

“We were inspired by Nike,” said Clark. “We want Fly Emirates to be as
recognizable as the Nike swoosh.” And they want their aircraft arriving
at Canadian airports more than three times a week.

The A380 comes to town
By Neil Macdougall

When Emirates’ Airbus A380 landed at Toronto on the first scheduled flight of a super jumbo to Canada, the crowds didn’t realize the work that had gone into the venture.  Fortunately, the airliner’s gestation coincided with the airport authority’s 10-year development program. The planners ensured that runways, taxiways and the deicing facility suited the A380, and two gates were equipped with double bridges.

Some parallel taxiways cannot be used during the A380’s arrival. Other airports like London Heathrow have more restrictions. In Los Angeles, before A380 arrivals, authorities reportedly use vehicles to block taxiways where problems could arise and close an adjacent service road.

Airbus itself wanted the plane’s flying characteristics to be familiar and unremarkable.   David Heino of Burlington, Ont., captain of the first flight, earlier flew smaller Airbuses. He said, “The A380’s nice and stable. It’s just like any other airliner until you get it on the ground.  You have to be careful because thrust can cause damage.”
 
Moreover, the 261-footspan wings intrude on runways and taxiways at many airports.  Pilots can’t see the wingtips from the cockpit, nor on the tail fin-mounted camera that shows passengers the view ahead. An under-the-nose camera enables the pilots to track the yellow lines precisely.  A table showing the span of other airliners also helps A380 pilots avoid conflicts.

Captain Heino estimated that 80 per cent of Emirates’ pilots are expatriates.  (Canadians and Australians are also well represented in cabin crews.)  His first officer was trained at an American university. Most new pilots have been British-trained, but are now Australian-trained, although the airline has its own flying school in Dubai. Emirates has an amazing 168 airliners on order; Qatar Airways has 200 and even hopes to speed deliveries.  Other Middle East and Asian carriers have reduced recruiting, but are eager to replace expensive expats with natives, as evidenced by several 23-year-old first officers on heavy Boeings.  A well-financed Canadian school might break into this market.

The crew rest area is at the aft end of the 399-passenger economy main deck. It’s so quiet that crews have complained they can’t sleep. Presumably it lacks the two showers in first-class.  These have a heated floor, a limit of two people and a dinky bench with belt.  In an emergency the crew would have to hustle 166 feet, past service carts and staff while ignoring the bar, where some passengers spend the entire 13-hour flight, according to a flight attendant.

Airbus had hoped the A380’s wake would be no greater than the Boeing 747-400’s.  Extensive wind tunnel tests on winglets were followed by more than 180 flying hours of wake measurements. A blue-ribbon committee concluded the largest airliner (1,200,000 lb. GTOW) had a wake to match its size. Thus A380 pilots now follow their call sign with expression “Super.”

Nav Canada has adopted ICAO’s turbulence separation standards.  The A380s require two to four miles more than heavy aircraft.  Consequently a single A380 reduces landings on a runway, perhaps by two or three per hour. Air traffic isn’t congested now, but a healthier economy and more A380s might make airports think of higher landing fees for A380s.

The vertical wake separation for an A380 is 1,000 feet, but an Armair A320 flying 1,000 feet below an A380 encountered severe turbulence that caused the autopilot to disconnect and throw the aircraft into steep banks three times. A blog by another pilot reported severe turbulence when 4,000 feet below an A380.  Airliners approaching Pearson’s runway 23 pass over Buttonville airport, an active general aviation field. Nav Canada controllers will ensure at least 1,000-foot vertical separation between aircraft on final and the top of the Buttonville Control Zone. It remains to be seen if this is adequate.

Remarkably, Emirates traded the A380s on its Dubai-New York run for the smaller Boeing 777s on the three-times-per-week Toronto run. Loads on the Toronto run were said to be heavier. Bookings out of Toronto for the summer are reported to be 90 per cent of capacity. The proud airline has long been seeking Canadian rights for a daily service. Canada, likely fearing damage to Air Canada, has refused.

The plane’s arrival in Toronto was greeted with claps and smiles. Mayor Hazel McCallion of Mississauga, the city where Pearson airport is located, was so charmed that she urged both federal and Ontario government ministers to expedite approval of additional flights. Is it possible the airline is using the A380 to gain support for this change, and plans to return the A380 to New York if daily services are approved?