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Operator of float-plane terminal plans to sue PavCo

A plane, belonging to Harbour Air, lies partially submerged at the new dock facilities at the float plane terminal in Vancouver on November 5th, 2011.

Simon Hayter For The Globe and Mail/simon hayter The Globe and Mail

The private-sector operator of a float-plane terminal in downtown Vancouver has announced plans to sue PavCo over the Crown corporation's alleged failure to shut down a competing terminal.

Vancouver Harbour Flight Centre – a joint venture between the Clark and Ledcor groups – announced its intentions Tuesday, saying it had run out of patience waiting for a long-running dispute over the terminal to be resolved.

"It's just gone on too long," VHFC president Paul McElligott said. "This facility has been operational since last May and we have gone through several different processes with PavCo and, frankly, we're tired of the dithering."

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The terminal, built at a cost of about $20-million, is operating at "less than 5 per cent" capacity and losing money to the tune of about $250,000 a month, he added.

The potential lawsuit is another headache for PavCo – which operates BC Place and the Vancouver Convention Centre – and the provincial government as they are under fire for their handling of naming rights for BC Place. A deal that would have given Telus rights to use its name at BC Place – renovated with a new roof at a cost of more than $500-million – recently collapsed after months of negotiations.

The VHFC terminal was supposed to replace a Coal Harbour terminal that is currently home to Vancouver-based Harbour Air, the biggest float-plane operator in the province. Float-plane operations moved to the Coal Harbour site from a base farther east on the waterfront in 2004, supposedly on a temporary basis, to make way for the new convention centre.

But even before the new terminal opened last May, Harbour Air and other float-plane companies balked at moving in, saying rental fees were too high and would force float-plane operators to jack up fares. The dispute broadened when float-plane companies, led by Harbour Air, raised questions about the design and safety of the new facility.

The province commissioned a report into the new terminal's design last fall but to date has not released it.

PavCo now wants to carry out more studies, Harbour Air executive vice-president Randy Wright said on Tuesday, adding that Harbour Air supports that approach.

"We have some real concerns about that facility," Mr. Wright said.

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Further studies are needed to address safety concerns and potential design changes, said Philip Reece, director of Saltspring Air, one of the companies that has balked at moving into the new terminal.

"We believe a full study of the [VHFC]float-plane docks is a prudent move that is in the public interest," Mr. Reece said.

VHFC disputes there are any safety issues with the terminal.

In November, a Harbour Air plane parked at the VHFC terminal as part of an engineering study took on water and partially sank. That incident has now been chalked up partly to "human error" involving a Harbour Air employee who did not pump out a pontoon at a designated time. VHFC says the inadequate frequency of checks was the primary cause of the incident, while Harbour Air says human error "contributed" to the accident.

Tourism Minister Pat Bell was not immediately available for comment on the dispute or the potential lawsuit.

The wrangle also involves the city and its plans for the Coal Harbour waterfront, but the city has been staying in the background in the hopes that the province and the operators could work out a solution.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More

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