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New Transport Minister Alghabra takes on portfolio at a time of crisis

Omar Alghabra at a news conference in Ottawa on Jan.

15, 2020.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

New federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra takes on a portfolio at a time of crisis for Canada and the aviation industry.

He replaces Marc Garneau, a former military officer and astronaut named transport minister in 2015, in a cabinet shuffle announced on Tuesday morning. Mr. Garneau, first elected in 2008, becomes Minister of Foreign Affairs.


Alghabra, who represents Mississauga Centre and was parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, was first elected in 2006, and is serving his third term in Parliament. He was defeated in 2008 and 2011 but returned to Ottawa in 2015 and again in 2019.

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An engineer by trade, Mr. Alghabra was born in Saudi Arabia to a Syrian family, and holds degrees from Ryerson University and York University.

Mike McNaney, head of the National Airlines Council of Canada, the airline group that speaks for Air Canada, WestJet and Transat AT Inc., said the industry is keen to work with the new minister on the "safe restart" of air travel and the rollout of a COVID-19 testing regime linked to travel quarantines and border restrictions.

"Aviation is in crisis," Mr.

McNaney said in a statement. "Canada's major airlines are still operating without sector-specific aid and are consequently losing market share to foreign competitors who have received strong sectoral support from their governments."

An industry source speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk publicly said the airline industry was surprised at the appointment of a little-known politician with no experience in the portfolio at a time the industry is imperiled by lack of demand.

The new minister faces a daunting list of issues demanding his attention: negotiating with airlines and other aviation companies seeking financial aid, bringing order to the patchwork of COVID-19 testing at Canada's major airports, and shepherding an imminent decision from cabinet on Air Canada's takeover of Transat, a move that would reduce competition and choices for consumers.

Additionally, the government's decision on clearing the Boeing 737 Max to resume service in Canada is expected shortly. On the railway file, there are questions about whether Canada will follow the U.S. lead and require railways to install fail-safe technology, known as positive train control, that can override operator mistakes and prevent collisions.

Barry Prentice, a transportation economist who teaches at the University of Manitoba, said Mr. Alghabra's lack of experience in transportation leaves open the question of how successful he will be in tackling the "horrible mess" he faces.

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"The Transport Minister is not going to have a fun ride ahead of him," Prof.

Prentice said from Winnipeg. "He really has almost no background in transport."

Still, he said Mr. Alghabra's immigrant roots likely give him a worldly perspective of the transportation challenges Canada is confronting, and provide an advantage over earlier transport ministers from central Canada who were more focused on urban issues.

Mr. Alghabra was not available for an interview on Tuesday.

Airlines have laid off thousands of people, grounded much of their planes and posted deep losses in the pandemic.

The industry has repeatedly called for a loosening of travel quarantines and eased border restrictions for people who test negative for COVID-19.

Air Canada issued a statement that congratulated Mr. Garneau on his new role, and said it looked forward to working with Mr. Alghabra "to position the airline industry to emerge from this crisis."

John Gradek, who teaches aviation leadership at McGill University, said the minister should expect a "barrage" of public pressure from the aviation industry's players to highlight the crises they face and the public support they need to survive.

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"There is an ongoing undeclared skirmish going on between the aviation industry and the government with respect to sectoral aid," Mr.

Gradek said. "The pressure's on."

Mr. Garneau was widely respected within the aviation industry, Mr. Gradek said.

Although he was the target of most of the pressure exerted by the crisis-stricken airlines, unions and other participants, it was understood responsibilities for financial aid, testing programs and other required supports rests with other elements of governments, including cabinet, the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance.

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