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Coal Harbour residents want 'temporary' floatplane terminal shut

A Harbour Air float plane comes in for landing into Vancouver Harbour May 16, 2011.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

With a new floatplane terminal up and running in downtown Vancouver, Coal Harbour residents have asked the city to force Harbour Air to move from its seawall site.

"As the Vancouver Harbour Flight Centre is now open and as the council voted to extend the temporary permit for floatplanes to operate in their present 'temporary location' only until this new facility is open, I now call upon the City of Vancouver to live up its solemn promise to the residents, recreational boaters and park users," Gerald Sieben, a member of the Coal Harbour Residents' Association said in a May 26 letter to mayor and council.

Saying that residents have tolerated seven years of "temporary use" by the floatplane industry, Mr. Sieben goes on to ask the city "take the necessary steps to have the floatplanes immediately cease their now illegal commercial and industrial operations."

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The residents' demands come as a provincial mediator works behind the scenes in the hope of resolving an impasse over downtown floatplane traffic.

The $18.5-million Vancouver Harbour Flight Centre, a private-sector partnership between the Clarke and Ledcor groups, opened on May 25. It was supposed to replace a temporary Coal Harbour facility to which floatplane operations were bumped in 2004 to make room for the Convention Centre expansion.

At the time, Coal Harbour residents were told the relocation was temporary. But construction delays and the 2010 Olympics pushed back the schedule for a new, permanent facility.

VHFC opened its new terminal this month. But to date, only two companies - Seair and Tofino Air - have signed up to use it.

Harbour Air, the biggest player in the industry, and other companies have refused, citing what they say are exorbitant costs to use the terminal.

The standoff is a headache for provincial and city officials. This past February, the Vancouver Commercial Seaplane Operators Association, headed by Harbour Air chief executive officer Greg McDougall, asked the provincial ombudsperson to investigate how the provincial government handled the terminal project. The association claims floatplane operators were shut out of the bidding process and questions whether provincially owned B.C. Pavilion Corp. has met terms of its lease with VHFC that call for "fair and reasonable" commercial terms for operators.

The VCSOA has been pushing its case through social media, urging customers to send e-mail petitions to provincial Tourism Minister Pat Bell and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson.

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The province has appointed a mediator to help broker a deal between VHFC and floatplane operators. City officials, meanwhile, say they have asked Harbour Air for a decommissioning plan but would not discuss how or when the city would ask the company to move.

To help woo customers to the new terminal, PavCo - which runs the Convention Centre - gave VHFC a 24-year rent break on its water lot until 2035. With that rent break, VHFC reduced what had been a planned $12-per-trip levy to $9.50 a trip.

Floatplane operators say they pay, on average, about $3 a trip to use other landing facilities in the province.

As the standoff continues, it appears that passengers can expect some bargains.

To mark its entry to the downtown market, Seair is offering a Vancouver-Nanaimo fare for $69. (The same trip for a car and driver on B.C. Ferries costs about $61.) Seair is also offering discount rates to the Gulf Islands from its base in Richmond.

As part of its regular promotional routine, Harbour Air is advertising Web fares as low as $29 to some destinations.

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An estimated 340,000 passengers fly in and out of the Vancouver harbour each year.

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