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Safety review ordered for new Vancouver float-plane terminal

A long-running dispute over float plane operations in Vancouver harbour has taken another twist, with reports about potential design flaws at a new, privately operated facility built at a cost of about $20-million.

"Even if we had a lease agreement – which we don't, even after months of mediation – we would have serious safety concerns about moving [to the new facility]" Harbour Air chief executive officer Greg McDougall said Thursday.

There has been at least one incident of a plane being damaged at the recently opened Vancouver Harbour Flight Centre, and operators have had to take "extreme measures" to ensure planes are not damaged by the docks, which are about 25 to 30 centimetres higher than docks at a nearby facility operated by Harbour Air, Mr. McDougall said.

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The higher docks and the new terminal's location – in a site less sheltered than Harbour Air's current base and subject to swells – mean planes have a difficult time safely getting to and from the docks, Mr. McDougall said.

The new terminal has been designed to exacting safety and engineering standards, VHFC president Graham Clarke said Thursday, adding that the sole incident involving a plane contact with the dock featured a small plane on the terminal's first day of operations and resulted in minimal damage.

Flights land and take off daily from the new terminal without incident, he added.

"Saying it's a safety issue is completely a red herring," Mr. Clarke said. "It really is a financial issue."

An engineering study has been commissioned to determine whether there are any safety or design concerns at the new terminal, B.C. Tourism Minister Pat Bell said Thursday.

"We are doing a review of the floats to determine whether they are appropriately designed and whether there is any hazard associated with them," Mr. Bell said, adding that the report is expected in the next week or so.

The new terminal – located at the north end of the Convention Centre expansion on a site leased from BC Pavilion Corp.(PavCo) – opened in May and was built by two private companies, the Clarke Group and the Ledcor Group.

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The VHFC was to be the new home of float plane operators, including Harbour Air, that had been bumped from a Burrard Street base in 2003 to what was to have been a temporary Coal Harbour site to make room for the Convention Centre expansion.

But as the new facility drew near completion, Harbour Air and other operators balked, saying fees at the new facility were too steep and would result in a $12 increase on trips in and out of the harbour.

The operators also complained about the way the lease and the facility had been awarded, saying they had been shut out of the bidding process – claims rejected by the VHFC.

The dispute was a headache for the city – which wanted to complete a seawall path and has for years been fielding float-plane-related noise complaints from Coal Harbour residents – and for the province, which owns PavCo.

To try to resolve the issue, PavCo gave the VHFC a rent break for nearly 25 years, which allowed the VHFC to lower its rates.

The lower costs were enough to draw a couple of smaller airlines to the VHFC, but Harbour Air held its ground. The province brought in a mediator and talks went on over the summer.

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At a press conference Thursday on the waterfront, within view of both terminals, NDP MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert called the new terminal a "boondoggle."

"It's surprising that we are still not finding an answer to this problem," Mr. Herbert said, adding that operators had proposed a non-profit terminal rather than the for-profit version supported by the provincial government.

Under the terms of its lease with the city – which has been repeatedly extended – Harbour Air was able to stay at its Coal Harbour terminal until September, 2012 or until a new terminal was completed, whichever came first. But Harbour Air maintained it couldn't move to the new facility without a reasonable lease.

With safety concerns and an engineering report now in the mix, the city has extended Harbour Air's lease on a one-month basis, pending the result of the safety review.

The mediator had booked out several weeks ago but has been asked to return, Mr. Bell said.

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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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