Sunday, April 22, 2012

PavCo challenges Vancouver float-plane terminal over safety concerns

Passengers offload from a Harbour Air seaplane in Vancouver, March 13, 2012.
 John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

VANCOUVER— From Monday's Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Apr. 22, 2012 7:45PM EDT
Last updated Sunday, Apr. 22, 2012 7:48PM EDT

A new float-plane terminal in Vancouver’s downtown harbour “has never been safe or functional for float-plane operations,” B.C. Pavilion Corp. alleges in court documents filed as part of a lawsuit relating to the facility.

And the risk of contact between airplanes and docks in parts of the terminal, known as the Vancouver Harbour Flight Centre, “may cause property damage and personal injury,” PavCo said in its April 13 response to a claim filed against it in the Supreme Court of B.C.

The allegations, which have not been proved in court, echo safety concerns that float-plane companies have previously raised about VHFC, a $22-million facility at the north end of the new convention centre.

The privately financed terminal was supposed to be a spiffy new home for float-plane operators that whisk an estimated 300,000 passengers a year between Victoria and Vancouver, as well as other destinations. But even before it opened last May, VHFC was bogged down in a controversy over fees, with float-plane companies balking at what they viewed as excessively high rents to use the facility. As that dispute dragged on, would-be tenants also raised safety concerns, which VHFC characterized as a ploy to avoid having to move in to the new facility.

Currently, the new VHFC terminal and the makeshift facility it was to replace are both in business – with VHFC losing about $250,000 a month, while the biggest player in the business, Vancouver-based Harbour Air, continues to operate from the “temporary” facility.

The province last September commissioned a report to look into safety and design concerns at the terminal, but to date that report has not been released. In the meantime, two seaplane companies, Seair and Tofino Air, fly passengers to and from the facility daily.

“I’m going to let a court decide whether [the terminal] is safe and functional,” VHFC president Paul McElligott said last week. “We believe it’s safe and it is functional – it’s been operating since last May and there are float-plane companies operating out of it today. Now that it’s before the courts, I’ll let it get settled in that arena.”

VHFC has already filed a response rejecting PavCo’s allegations.

PavCo officials declined to comment.

The legal slugfest got underway last month, when VHFC sued PavCo, Harbour Air and two of its executives, and the Vancouver Commercial Seaplane Operators Association.

In its suit, VHFC said PavCo – which owns the water lot where the new terminal is located, and leases it to VHFC – had breached that lease and “failed to take steps to terminate the use of the temporary facility and has permitted it to be used in competition with the new facility.”

In a bid to woo companies to the new terminal, PavCo last year agreed to defer VHFC’s rent, allowing VHFC to lower the rates it charged to prospective tenants. Two tenants signed up after that reduction – which worked out to float-plane companies paying about $9.50 in costs instead of an earlier-proposed $12 per flight in and out of the harbour.

The dispute hit bumpy water before it wound up in court. Last November, a Harbour Air float plane partly sank while docked at VHFC as part of a safety test. The incident became controversial, with both sides suggesting the other was responsible in the mishap.

A draft report into that incident by aviation investigation firm R.J. Waldron and Co. and commissioned by PavCo, a copy of which was provided to The Globe and Mail, found none of the perceived safety concerns raised by Harbour Air – such as docks being too high and overly exposed to waves – were a factor.

Instead, the report found the primary cause for the sinking was inadequate checks by Harbour Air personnel for water on the plane’s pontoons and, in particular, a missed check on the night of Nov. 4 last year – the night before the plane was spotted, tail sinking in the water, at about 4:27 a.m.

Harbour Air CEO Greg McDougall, while conceding that human error contributed to the incident, has stated that the safety test gathered data that could highlight potential public safety concerns at the terminal.

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