Argentina pushes to open new airline service to Falklands

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One month after threatening to eliminate the only commercial flight to the Falkland Islands, Argentina president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has asked Aerolineas Argentinas to negotiate opening a direct route from Buenos Aires to Port Stanley.

During a parliamentary speech on 2 March, Kirchner asked both her foreign minister and the president of state-owned flag carrier Aerolineas Argentinas, Mariano Recalde, to "create the conditions for three weekly Aerolineas Argentinas-operated flights connecting Buenos Aires directly with Puerto Argentina [the Argentinean named for the capital of the Falklands]".

Fernandez herself recognizes this to be a change in her strategy regarding the Falklands.

On 10 February, Argentina foreign minister Hector Timerman told the United Nations that Argentina might be "preparing countermeasures against the increasing militarization of the Falklands by the UK". Argentina has protested the UK's recent decisions to deploy the HMS Dauntless to the islands, as well as Prince William as a search and rescue pilot.

Fernandez threatened to suspend an air traffic agreement signed in 1998. This treaty allowed Chile's LAN Airline to operate two weekly flights connecting Punta Arenas in Southern Chile with the Falklands, including an intermediate stop at Rio Gallegos in the Argentinean Patagonia.

The suspension of this route would have left the islands without their only commercial air link. The UK operates six monthly military flights to an RAF base in Oxfordshire, which are open to civilian passengers as long as there is room.

However, it is unclear if the UK will grant Aerolineas Argentinas traffic rights to Port Stanley and if the route would substitute or complement LAN's current connection.

An Aerolineas Argentinas spokesman says that he had "seen Cristina's [Fernandez] announcement on TV", but that it is still too early to know "when flights could be launched". The spokesman, however, affirmed "technically, Aerolineas or Austral could start flying tomorrow".

A local LAN source says that he is unaware of any potential implications for LAN's current connection. But he adds that "serving a [Falkland Islands] population of less than 3,000 inhabitants is highly unprofitable".

A source at Argentina's foreign ministry in Buenos Aires says that Argentina wants "the inhabitants of the islands to feel at home in Argentina, which is a country composed by European immigrants, including many Brits".

"I am sure they will love to get the opportunity to come to Buenos Aires for shopping, medical assistance or education without the hassle and cost of having to fly half around the globe", he says.

He notes the desired starting date for Aerolineas Argentinas' flight to the Falklands should be in January 2013, the 180th anniversary of the first arrival of British naval forces in the islands.