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Seaplane operators optimistic about new terminal proposal

The Vancouver Commercial Seaplane Operators Association left a Monday afternoon meeting with Port Metro Vancouver happy that progress is being made towards a non-profit terminal for Vancouver's inner harbour.

“We’re confident Port Metro Vancouver will take a serious look at our proposal, and once all the cards are on the table we think the terminal on the east side of Canada Place will become a reality,” said Mike Quinn, Vice-president of the VCSOA and owner of Whistler Air.

The VCSOA, which represents the eight airlines that would use the terminal, rejected the planned privately owned Vancouver Harbour Flight Centre at the north end of the new Vancouver Convention Centre. The developers, the Clark Group and Ledcor, want to impose a $12 one-way trip fee. A levy the VCSOA says is entirely profit-motivated and would put the airlines out of business.

“This is the only for-profit airport model in Canada we are aware of, it is totally unprecedented,” said Greg McDougall, CEO of Harbour Air and President of the VCSOA.

McDougall agreed the meeting with PMV was a positive one, but raised concerns about how long it could take to get the proposal approved. “We’re worried about being mired in endless process,” he said.

The timeline for the VCSOA is a short one. They have agreed to vacate their temporary location when a new seaplane terminal is completed. The developers of VHFC say it will be ready in May.

The alternative location remains a question mark because PMV has reservations about the safety of a terminal to the east of Canada Place. The small area is already used by cruise ships, the SeaBus, Coast Guard, the Vancouver Police Marine Unit, TYMAC launch services, Canfisco (fishing), and Centerm (shipping).

PMV director of communications Duncan Wilson said the Port will not entertain the possibility of a temporary location on the east side. A terminal at the location will only be possible after all the studies and evaluations are complete.

Wilson went on to say that PMV prefers the west side location for the terminal, but he understands the VCSOA does not believe that location meets all their needs. Despite this understanding, he said PMV will not rush any decisions.

“We’re being asked to move one of B.C.’s busiest airports, that does take time to do,” Wilson said. He did not want to speculate on how long it would take exactly, but said the application and approval process will definitely not be completed by May.

This leaves the VCSOA in a difficult situation. Without a viable alternative to the VHFC they may find themselves homeless before the busy summer season.

“The east side is the right spot for the terminal and makes perfect sense if you take an objective non-partisan view of the situation,” said Quinn “It is actually better and safer because the Mariners on the east side are all professionals, the west side is full of inexperienced recreational boat users.”

Philip Reece, director of Salt Spring Air also addressed the safety issues. “This was really the first time we were able to sit down with the Port to discuss all the challenges,” he said. “We were able to work through issues on both sides and I believe we’re going to be able to address all of the Port’s concerns.”

Transport Canada, the federal regulator for commercial seaplane operations, will be asked to conduct an extensive safety study and compose a safety matrix for operations east of Canada Place. Transport Canada developed a safety management system for Victoria to help manage seaplane and boat travel in that harbour.

The VCSOA believes Victoria is model that Vancouver should follow. “There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel,” McDougall said. “Vancouver is actually much easier to figure out than Victoria.”

Last week the VCSOA met with Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson. The Mayor was supportive of ongoing discussions between all sides. The VCSOA proposal will require the City of Vancouver and PMV to reconsider their joint development plan for the east side of Canada Place. Current usage plans do not include floatplanes.

They would also have to walk away from the $22 million VHFC already under construction. This may be a palatable option since none of the operators are willing to use the terminal due to the levy. VCSOA members predict the levy will cut passenger numbers, and fear it will only increase if passenger counts drop as expected.

The VCSOA’s proposed facility between Crab Park and the SeaBus terminal, would cost $10 million to $12 million and operate entirely non-profit. It would also be conveniently located with access to the SeaBus, float planes, the Canada Line, SkyTrain and the West Coast Express.

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