Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Harbour Air: Seaplane Airline Has Served Region For 30 Years

There are few things more distinctly West Coast than the sight and sound of a floatplane racing across a stretch of water for take-off, an event familiar to every resident of Nanaimo. “When the Olympics were on we were kept very busy flying media crews from around the world on sightseeing tours and the one thing they couldn’t get over were our aircraft,” explained Randy Wright, Executive Vice President of Harbour Air.

Described as the largest seaplane airline in the world, Harbour Air operates more than 50 aircraft of various sizes, primarily de Havilland Beavers and Otters. “Canada pretty much invented the concept of Bush Pilots, and these Canadian designed aircraft have proven to be the best ever designed,” he said. “Nothing anywhere has even come close to the quality, usability and functionality of these classic machines.”

Nanaimo’s seaplane base, which is owned by the Nanaimo Port Authority and is leased to Harbour Air, is home to four of the company’s air fleet. Founded in 1982, Harbour Air has grown over the decades, in part by acquiring smaller floatplane equipped air carriers. Today the company’s workhorse aircraft is the venerable single engine Otter, but with its original piston power plant replaced by a state of the art gas turbine engine. The Nanaimo operation employs 27 people, from pilots and receptionists to dock crews who load and fuel the machines as they come and go.

“Nanaimo is a busy base,” Wright said. “There are more than 16,000 flights in and out of Nanaimo each year – 8,200 between Nanaimo and Vancouver, 5,000 between Nanaimo and Richmond (where the Harbour Air corporate offices are located) and about 3,000 linking Nanaimo to Sechelt. That traffic involves more than 117,000 passengers each year.”

The existence of other modes of transport between Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland, such as the new Helijet helicopter service or the planned fast ferry service don’t cause Wright much concern.

“There’s a lot of traffic occurring, there’s plenty of business for everyone. The helicopter might be faster, but there aren’t going to be many of them, so the actual passenger numbers will be fairly low. They have been talking fast ferry for a long time and we’ve yet to see it. Even when it does, people are still going to want the speed and convenience of downtown to downtown access,” he speculated.

“There are a lot of people who commute by air every day to Vancouver. With the low housing prices and other benefits of living on Vancouver Island there are many people who would much rather live on the Island and work in Vancouver. There may be a few, A very few days in the year when we can’t fly, but on the whole it’s a very reliable service. Safety is always one of our top priorities, so if we feel it’s not wise to fly we won’t. But it’s not the sort of thing that happens very often.”

With a proven track record of success, a fleet of updated classic aircraft and plans for enhancing the travel experience for its passengers (including offering pre-recorded commentaries to be heard over passenger headphones) Harbour Air is intending to be a key component of the Vancouver Island transportation mix for decades to come. “Our founders took the ‘Bush Plane’ mentality and turned it into an airline,” Wright said. “Now we’re going to expand on what we do, bringing the floatplane experience to a wider audience, that’s something we’re really going to push in the months ahead.”

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