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The BC Ferries vessel Queen of Oak Bay approaches the dock at the Horseshoe Bay Ferry Terminal upon arrival from Departure Bay in West Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday March 5, 2013.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Borrowing a strategy from the airline industry, BC Ferries wants to turn its booking system upside-down so that travel reservations are the norm, and the cost of travel will vary depending on when and where customers purchase their tickets.

The proposed "fare flexibility" plan, which has been submitted to the Crown corporation's independent regulator, promises to provide lower fares for savvy travellers in vehicles who can take advantage of off-peak sailings.

BC Ferries is a quasi-private Crown corporation – it receives a subsidy from the province but is supposed to be run like an independent, private corporation. However, the agency is a frequent target of public criticism over rising fares and reduced service levels.

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Mike Corrigan, BC Ferries' president and CEO, said Wednesday the changes would help the company improve service and reduce pressure on future fares, and should reverse the trend of declining ridership.

"It's a similar model with airlines, with hotels, even with golf courses," he said in an interview. "People who are willing to book in advance, who are willing to accept some restrictions and who are willing to travel at off-peak times are going to get a completely different price than someone who travels at the last minute and at peak time."

The company filed a 200-page application to the BC Ferry Commission on Tuesday, and announced the plan on Wednesday.

"The company understands that this will be a significant change for its customers and, therefore, the implementation will be staged and measured," the application states. The main routes, between Metro Vancouver and Vancouver Island, would be the first to change over.

Currently, customers pay a set fare at the terminal unless they opt to guarantee their space by paying an additional reservation fee in advance. In the past fiscal year, only 16 per cent of private-vehicle traffic – about 420,000 vehicles – used the reservation system.

Under the new model, starting in 2017, travellers would be expected to book in advance, but there would be no additional fee. Those who choose to book at the terminal would be paying the posted fare without the opportunity for a discount. Mr. Corrigan said it is too early to say what kind of price range there might be on an individual sailing.

BC Ferries expects that by offering incentives for online reservations – allowing the company to better match capacity to demand – it will entice two-thirds of customers to book their travel in advance.

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The proposal was met with some skepticism. "The booking system desperately needs to be revamped," said Evan Putterill, one of the Ferry Advisory Committee chairs.

"Will it be an improvement? It will depend on how they roll it out."

Of course, the corporation wants to upgrade its computer systems to make the proposal work. "The current website is outdated, rigid and inflexible, and cannot support these strategies," the report says. A new Web platform "will offer an intuitive purchase experience through a device of the customer's choosing – mobile, tablet or computer."

The company also hopes to make more money by up-selling customers on additional products and services – the online reservation system would "provide a sales channel that will add incremental revenue to the Company by cross-promoting travel products and onboard services."

NDP ferries critic Claire Trevena said she is concerned. "They are looking at the airline model but we are talking about our marine highway. People need consistency and this will just create confusion."

BC Ferries is under pressure to reduce costs, but a recent proposal to shut down the Departure Bay terminal near Nanaimo and eliminate the service between Nanaimo and Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver was quickly axed by Transportation Minister Todd Stone.

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Mr. Corrigan said the changes to the booking system do not require government approval, but he said the province still needs to provide some policy direction to address the clash between service levels and fares. "If the government doesn't want to change the service and they want fares to remain the same, it is going to require an additional contribution from government."

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