"There's nothing like an airport for bringing you down to earth." -- Author Richard Gordon, Doctor In The Swim
Vancouver International Airport's controversial Airport Improvement Fee jumps by 33 per cent today -- but British Columbians will overwhelmingly be paying it, while international connecting travellers will get all the benefits without spending an extra penny.
Vancouver International Airport says it needs to increase the fee by $5 to $20 per passenger on flights leaving B.C. to pay for $1.8 billion worth of improvements -- most of it to reduce connection times for travellers passing through YVR -- including high-speed baggage systems and moving walkways.
Those connecting international passengers will be the big winners as they zoom through YVR to and from primarily Asian destinations -- and are completely exempt from the Airport Improvement Fee.
But people who actually live here –- or tourists who visit beyond Vancouver International Airport -- will pay the freight through the higher AIF for another decade, despite the fact it was supposed to end in 2002.*
And like it or not, you have absolutely no say in the matter -- other than to not fly out of YVR airport.
YVR 'out of control'
YVR is a strange non-profit entity that answers to no member of the public or to any level of government -- and their decision is already final.
Consumers Association of Canada president Bruce Cran says YVR is "out of control" with the latest AIF increase.
"It's absolutely outrageous we're being charged another $5 tax to subsidize connecting passengers," Cran said in an interview Monday. "I don't think YVR serves the public of British Columbia well."
"We never asked for aquariums or shopping centres at YVR," Cran said, referring to the costly airport infrastructure that included paying the Vancouver Aquarium over $321,000 in 2010 for "aquarium maintenance and servicing."
But you can at least express your anger in two ways.
If you feel ripped off, join my Facebook.com protest page -- titled No Way YVR.
And if you can, attend YVR's annual public meeting on Thursday, May 10 at 3:30 p.m. in the East Concourse, Departures Level of the International Terminal, conveniently timed to exclude as many members of the public as possible!
Cran also points out that: "There's never been any real consumer representative on the YVR board of directors."
Business flying away
YVR's higher AIF is part of increasing costs that are enticing many B.C. air travellers to cross the U.S. border and fly out of Bellingham or Seattle, Washington in record numbers.
That's partly why Seattle's airport had a record 32.8 million travellers in 2011 -- almost double Vancouver's 17 million.
And why Bellingham airport is undergoing a $30 million expansion and hosts 808,000 passengers a year already.
The Canadian Airports Council estimates Canada loses nearly 5 million passengers a year to U.S. border airports.
YVR will argue that their higher AIF is still lower than some other Canadian and U.S. airports and that VYR was voted "airport of the year" for the third time in a row -- so suck up the fare increase and shut up.
But Vancouver ought to learn a lesson from Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, Europe's fifth biggest, which introduced a ticket tax of between $14 and $58 per trip in 2008 to raise $457 million annually.
Schiphol was forced to repeal the tax in less than a year after it lost nine per cent of all passengers and was forced cut its work force by 10 to 25 per cent as passengers fled to other, cheaper airports.
YVR, global organization
And don't think that YVR is a friendly little locally run airport that's done good. In fact, YVR is an international operation that runs Vantage Airport Group, which manages 12 airports in three continents, including those in Santiago, Chile, Nassau, The Bahamas, Montego Bay, Jamaica and Liverpool, England.
The Consumer Association's Cran says that while YVR is involved in other foreign airport management through its subsidiary Vantage, it lost the opportunity to have Emirates Airlines fly out of Vancouver. That airline instead chose Seattle's Sea-Tac Airport as its hub, costing B.C. hundreds of jobs.
Meanwhile, don't bother asking Premier Christy Clark for any help. She wants to "commend Vancouver Airport Authority for its long-term vision in keeping YVR competitive" without even mentioning the higher fee.
And B.C. Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom is even more oblivious to the extra cost to travelers, stating: "It is exciting to see the Airport Authority investing significant funds like this in YVR's infrastructure."
Is it exciting to invest other people's money without their approval, Minister?
Fees without end?
Once upon a time, then-YVR chief executive officer David Emerson said in 1996 that the AIF would end by 2002.
"We always said the fee was attached to this project, so once enough people go through the turnstiles to pay for the terminal and runway and retire the debt, then that fee is history," Emerson said then. "To be on the safe side, I would estimate that to be somewhere in the neighbourhood of six years."
Of course, that would be the same Emerson who, when campaigning to be elected a federal Liberal Member of Parliament in Vancouver-Kingsway also said he would be "Stephen Harper's worst nightmare" as a critic -- until days after the election he instead crossed the floor to the Conservatives and became Harper's newest cabinet minister. His word is less than his bond.
Will this finally be the last Airport Improvement Fee increase at YVR? When pigs fly.
*First four paragraphs updated at 3:50 p.m. on May 2, 2012.