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Les Leyne: Flight-centre differences settled at last

Sep 12 2012

When you start using the Vancouver Harbour Flight Centre in a few months, what do you get for your $9.50?

There will be a ticket counter in a building to shelter you from the rain, same as before.

There are washrooms and a waiting room, same as before.

And there's a dock so you don't have to wade out to the aircraft, same as before.

The big difference is a more convenient elevator that whisks you up to street level, so you don't have to lug your bags up three flights of stairs.

It cost a couple of million dollars. That's a lot for an elevator, but not by Vancouver Convention Centre standards. The sky was the limit during that $880-million adventure, and the same spirit prevailed in the building of the adjacent floatplane terminal.

It came in at an astonishing $21 million, almost double one of the original estimates. That's why travellers hopping over to Vancouver by floatplane will start paying an additional $9.50 every time they get off or on a plane.

As a point of comparison, travellers through Vancouver International Airport pay $10. That improvement fee goes directly into maintaining that giant, continually expanding facility.

When you use the comparatively tiny harbour flight centre, you'll pay only 50 cents less. And the money is straight revenue to the private operator, which badly needs to recoup the fortune spent on building the thing.

The fee was one of the big sticking points between the terminal operator and Harbour Air, which was assumed to be the main user. After holding out for 18 months, Harbour Air surrendered to the inevitable and announced this week it will be moving into the facility starting this fall.

It was part of a big group hug where most of the parties involved in what turned out to be a governmentinspired botch agreed to patch up their differences. It was accomplished through the good graces of former deputy minister Dan Doyle, who spent more than a year mediating a variety of differences between various parties.

The government delegated Pavco, the Crown corporation, to build the thing. Pavco contracted with a private consortium to construct it and operate it. It opened for business about 18 months ago and a small problem developed. There weren't any customers. VHFC - the Palace of Versailles of floatplane docks - sat 97 per cent empty for more than a year while nearly everyone involved started suing each other.

Harbour Air's decision to move over from its temporary dock may look like the end of the story, but it isn't. Incredibly enough, the $21-million facility still needs a few million dollars worth of work before the airline it was designed to accommodate can use it. Guess who will wind up paying for that work?

The extra work arises from an engineering report commissioned in the middle of the argument last year that eventually concluded there were significant design problems. After originally urging airlines to start using the terminal, the minister then responsible - Pat Bell - had to concede there were issues that needed to be addressed.

NDP critic Spencer Chandra Herbert said the flight centre's existing dock amounts to a multimillion-dollar breakwater.

It's an extraordinarily awkward conclusion to a remarkably clumsy attempt to accomplish something.

No question a new independently owned harbour terminal was a good idea. It would have allowed for more airline competition and made the convention centre a transportation hub.

But the airlines pitched the idea of a non-profit co-operative venture to accomplish those goals. The government preferred a standard request for proposals from private developers who would get a long-term lease and operating rights.

How the cost spiralled to such an absurd level is anyone's guess. But it looks like Pavco's insistence on going above and beyond on every conceivable feature helped pile the costs on.

Users could rightfully be expected to pay for a new facility, one way or the other. But $9.50 is about twice what could reasonably be expected for the privilege of walking through a terminal in the harbour.

The only bright spot in this tale is that all the arguing back and forth succeeded in whittling the price down. They originally wanted to ding passengers $12. If that counts as a win, it's a pretty measly one.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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