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Seattle-Vancouver harbour air link initiative buffeted by heavy bureaucratic headwinds

Floatplane and helicopter operators say their interest in developing a harbour-to-harbour service is tempered by high border services costs, insufficient Vancouver dock space

Vancouver won’t see harbour-to-harbour air service to Seattle any time soon, according to local floatplane and helicopter companies.

Washington-based Kenmore Air, which operates flights between Seattle and Victoria, is the most interested in the idea, but Kenmore director of sales and marketing Craig O’Neill called the idea more a “hope” than a “plan.”

The company, he said, has long been interested in offering three daily flights during the summer and two daily flights during the off-season between Vancouver harbour and the company’s downtown Seattle Lake Union hub.

But he said it faces three key obstacles: lack of dock space and a customs facility in Vancouver harbour and high Canada Border Service Agency (CBSA) service costs.

He said the most significant obstacle is the CBSA’s cost-recovery policy. It would require Kenmore to pay for any customs services established in Vancouver harbour to serve the company’s customers.

O’Neill said that, according to a CBSA quote, those annual border services costs would run “well into the six figures.”

“It just completely destroys the business case for doing it,” he said. “As long as that policy remains in place, we don’t see that international harbour-to-harbour seaplane service will be practical for us or anybody else to offer.”

As to the other obstacles, O’Neill said the Vancouver Harbour Flight Centre (VHFC) project initially looked as if it would solve the dock-space problem. But he said that as the project has evolved, Kenmore no longer sees the new terminal as a viable option.

In January, eight local floatplane operators, including Kenmore Air, said the VHFC would be too expensive. They consequently launched a project to build another new float-plane terminal in Vancouver: the Harbour Hub (see “Plane dealing on Vancouver’s waterfront – issue 1111; February 8-14).

The Vancouver Commercial Seaplane Operators Association (VCSOA) is seeking project approval from Port Metro Vancouver.

O’Neill said the Harbour Hub would provide Kenmore Air with dock space and a customs and immigration facility. That would leave only the cost-recovery obstacle.

Ottawa agreed late last year to cover the customs-related costs of running a second daily Amtrak Cascades train between Seattle and Vancouver. O’Neill pointed to that as a precedent that could be applied to a harbour-to-harbour float-plane service.

But he said until the dock space issue is resolved, Kenmore isn’t pursuing political support to have those costs waived.

Local floatplane heavyweight Harbour Air has no plans to compete with Kenmore Air by offering a rival Vancouver-Seattle service, according to Randy Wright, Harbour Air senior vice-president.

Wright said his company would support Kenmore Air’s plans to provide that service and look to partner with the company to extend a Seattle option to its own customers and enable Kenmore to serve Harbour Air destinations such as Ganges, Sechelt, Comox and Langley.

Reasons for not pursing a rival service, Wright said, include customs hurdles and different flight rules between Canada and the United States.

“Kenmore are the experts coming up already, and they’ve gone through all of that red tape,” he said. “That’s why we see it would be good to work with them versus starting something up.”

Rick Hill, Helijet International Inc.’s vice-president of operations and commercial programs, said helicopter operators wanting to launch a Vancouver-Seattle service would face similar obstacles, including the CBSA cost-recovery policy.

“It’s a market that’s been talked about for many, many years between the two cities, and it seems like a natural thing, given that we already have a heliport in Vancouver.”

But Hill added that Seattle doesn’t have a downtown heliport.

He said Helijet used to fly between Victoria and Boeing Field, just south of Seattle, and would have loved a downtown Seattle heliport. But he said the company determined that building the facility would require a significant investment of resources and hasn’t pursued it.

Hill said a Vancouver-Seattle helicopter service would complement float-plane services because even though helicopters are more expensive to operate, they aren’t as constrained by weather and visibility concerns as floatplanes are.

He said the idea of Helijet providing such a service is “not without merit,” but the company has no plans to pursue it.

“I think it’s an interesting market, and I do think these two cities should be linked, but I think it’s a lot of work to get it to that point.”