Opinion

No Way, YVR!

Vancouver airport's improvement fee hike, set by unelected officials with BC Lib ties, should be grounded.

By Bill Tieleman 31 Jan 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Bill Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at weststar@telus.net or visit his blog.

"I'm leavin' on a jet plane/I don't know when I'll be back again." -- John Denver, "Leaving On A Jet Plane," 1966.

If you're leaving on a jet plane out of Vancouver International Airport starting in May, you'll be leaving 33 per cent more money behind for YVR's Airport Improvement Fee.

That's because an unelected, unaccountable YVR board of directors led by a chief executive officer making $500,000 a year wants to raise $1.8 billion, primarily to handle baggage faster for international passengers transiting through YVR to and from Asia.

And they want to take that $1.8 billion straight from your pocket, by increasing the Airport Improvement Fee by $5 to $20 for 10 years on every passenger flying out of British Columbia.

I have a reaction of two words that start with the letters B and S -- Bellingham and Seattle airports!

Take off elsewhere

Thousands of British Columbians are already saving hundreds to thousands of dollars by flying out of those two U.S. airports, fed up with a variety of taxes, fees, charges and fuel surcharges on tickets.

And that will increasingly cost Vancouver airport jobs and governments revenue.

It's estimated that one in five Canadian leisure travellers already drive to the U.S. to avoid domestic taxes and another 11 per cent are considering it, according to a survey by the Hotel Association of Canada.

So it's no surprise Bellingham airport has a $30-million expansion of its own underway to accommodate Canadian passengers.

And it's not shocking that Seattle's airport set a new record for passengers in 2011, with 32.8 million travellers, while Vancouver had just over 17 million last year.

Vancouver's Airport Improvement Fee was imposed as an allegedly temporary measure in 1993 and a former YVR CEO predicted in 1996 that it would be gone by 2002.

But why give a sucker a break?

And don't expect a big public hearing or consultation on the Airport Improvement Fee -- the YVR board of directors can do whatever it wants to the travelling public.

That's because YVR's structure is among the most undemocratic and unaccountable you can imagine for an organization responsible for Canada's second-busiest airport.

In 1992, it was transferred from federal government control to become a strange not-for-profit that does not answer to either the federal nor provincial government.

Here's who gets to appoint the board of directors under YVR's rules:

• The Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of B.C.

• The Institute of Chartered Accountants of British Columbia

• The Law Society of British Columbia

• The Vancouver Board of Trade

• City of Richmond

• City of Vancouver

• Metro Vancouver

• Government of Canada -- two directors.

Those members appointed by the above then choose four members from "the community at large," but any review of the current 14 directors could only conclude that membership is restricted to B.C's elite. YVR CEO and president Larry Berg is also a director.

Board's BC Liberal ties

A review of Elections BC records finds that at least six directors have made contributions over $250 to the BC Liberal Party since 2005, including over $109,000 from "director at large" Rusty Goepel, either personally or through companies he had leadership roles in.

A man listed as "Lawrence Berg" has given over $21,000, and a "Larry Berg" separately gave $2,000. Elections BC will not give further information about donors to confirm identity.

When asked whether YVR CEO Larry Berg had made contributions to the BC Liberals, the airport authority's director of communications Rebecca Catley responded: "We don't have access to information about the private and personal contributions of Larry Berg over the past seven years."

Canadian government appointee George Cadman has donated over $8,000 personally or through his company. Other BC Liberal donors on the board include chair Mary Jordan, Carol Kerfoot and Brian Bentz, while director Gerri Sinclair publicly endorsed ex-premier Gordon Campbell in the 2009 election.

Of course, it's easy to make political contributions when YVR's chair is paid $115,000 a year, committee chairs $26,000 and other directors $20,000, plus $1,000 for every board and committee meeting attended and $500 for other meetings.

And it's easy to think raising the Airport Improvement Fee is no big deal when the CEO makes in the salary range of $368,000 to $552,000, when the senior vice-president range is $196,000 to $294,000 and vice-presidents from $160,000 to $240,000 -- with benefits and retirement packages as well.

Loser, not user, pays

The reality is, as Berg has admitted in the media, that rapidly expanding air travel to China is what's driving this expansion.

In an opinion piece published by the Vancouver Sun on Thursday, Berg writes that: "China's demand for air travel is growing by seven per cent annually, one of the fastest growing markets in the world. We want YVR to secure its fair share of that market..."

"Today it takes an average of 90 minutes to connect from an international flight to a domestic flight. In order to be the gateway of choice, connection times are the key... We want to get connections times consistently under 60 minutes," he says.

So British Columbians are going to pay more so passengers flying to and from China and other Asian destinations save 30 minutes. That may be good marketing for YVR, but it isn't user pay -- it's loser pay for those of us who don't need connecting flights when we arrive in Vancouver -- we're home.

YVR actually makes the outlandish claim that it is a "community-driven organization" by pointing out it holds a "public meeting" every year and stating that "we welcome your feedback."

Well here's my feedback -- if you want to raise $1.8 billion for better service to travellers who are only passing through Vancouver, then charge them the Airport Expansion Fee -- but not the rest of us who actually live here!

I'm sick and tired of paying the existing Airport Expansion Fee for 20 years and no, I don't want to pay an extra 33 per cent more per flight as of May.

If you agree, join my new Facebook protest page -- No Way YVR -- and send the airport a strong message -- that if they ignore us, we can take off elsewhere.  [Tyee]

Read more: Transportation

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