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Seaplane operator offers climate-friendly ride

A Harbour Air floatplane comes for landing into Vancouver's Coal Harbour June 3, 2010.



In 2007, B.C.-based float-plane operator Harbour Air set out to become North America's first airline to achieve complete carbon neutrality.

Since beginning operation in 1982 with two small seaplanes servicing the forest industry, Harbour Air has grown to become the largest all-seaplane passenger airline in the world, with more than 30 aircrafts. The company expanded its business by offering a unique and fun travel experience built around customer service with a personal touch. But could it become an environmental leader while keeping its operations personal, profitable and fun?

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Harbour Air's fleet consists of float planes capable of carrying between five and 18 passengers. Flying about 400,000 people annually, the company connects Vancouver and other locations in the Lower Mainland with the Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island. It also offers numerous tours, as well as private charters.

After comparing the greenhouse-gas emissions of its fleet with the emissions of other modes of transport sharing the same routes, the company discovered that its planes offer the most climate-friendly way for passengers to travel.

It decided to capitalize on this eco-friendly status by committing to further reducing the climate impact of its operations, and by purchasing high-quality carbon offsets for emissions it was unable to eliminate.

In October, 2007, the airline began to add a carbon offset surcharge to its flights to counterbalance the emissions of its passenger services. In January, 2008, Harbour Air took the plunge and made all of its corporate operations carbon neutral, paying for offsets directly out of company revenue.

Becoming the first airline in North America to achieve carbon neutrality wasn't without its challenges. The company worked hard to get the word out at a time when local customers, tourists, tour operators and even staff had little understanding of what a carbon offset was.

Harbour Air was well-versed in making its vision clear from vying for turf in B.C.'s congested harbours and in competing for consumers in a public transportation corridor with a diverse range of options. This gave the company the courage to play on its strategic strength and become an early adopter of carbon offsets. It also gave it the background needed to educate passengers about why ticket prices were going up slightly to pay for carbon offset surcharges.

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Meanwhile, it continued to build on its customer-driven services. From the ease of booking online, to personable staff, to its ability to redirect and add flights for efficient solutions, Harbour Air excels. Free coffee, cookies and shuttles, and the elegant touch of fresh tulips help as well.

Add a culture of corporate responsibility, including free flights donated to good causes – 2,000 seats in 2010 – and you start to see why Harbour Air was able to continue to build a large and loyal client base.


Working with carbon offsetting experts Offsetters, a Vancouver company whose projects are third-party verified for credibility, Harbour Air has helped support the work of a large number of energy efficiency and fuel-switching projects in B.C. These include the Deltaview Habilitation Centre, a palliative care facility in Delta that uses geothermal heating, and Sunselect Greenhouses in Aldergrove, which uses biomass boilers and heat-trapping curtains in place of traditional heating and cooling methods.

As of Nov. 30, 2010, the company has offset more than 41,351 metric tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. And, proving that a company can balance environmental leadership with business acumen, CEO Greg McDougall was rewarded in 2009 when Harbour Air was chosen as one of Canada's 50 Best Managed Companies.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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Moura Quayle is a professor at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia where she recently launch the innovative program , which aims to integrate design thinking into the business environment. She is BC's former Deputy Minister of Advanced Education.

This is the latest in a regular series of case studies by a rotating group of business professors from across the country. They appear every Friday on the Your Business website.

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