Friday, June 02, 2017

North America’s shortest international flight cleared for takeoff in Washington state

The Friday Harbor Airport on San Juan Island, Wash., received official clearance this week for flight. Pending FAA approval, a Canadian airline hopes to start booking passengers within the next month. One-way flights will start at $49.

North America’s shortest scheduled international flight — less than 20 minutes — will soon take off daily from Friday Harbor Airport and land in Victoria, Canada.

Friday Harbor, on San Juan Island, and Victoria, on Vancouver Island, are only 20 miles from each other but separated by a strait and an international border. Travelers’ options have been limited to driving, taking a seasonal ferry or chartering a plane.

It was the long travel time and cost that made Rick Hughes start asking questions about an easier route. Years ago, the San Juan County Council member wanted a nice Valentines’ Day getaway to Victoria for himself and his wife. But the ferry from Friday Harbor to Sidney, B.C., which takes an hour and 15 minutes, doesn’t run during the winter. Driving would take a full day. Charter flights cost between $300 and $700.

“I didn’t understand why it was so close, but we couldn’t get there,” Hughes said.

Agencies on both sides of the border had been wondering the same thing. So they worked together to establish a way for U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents to clear passengers at the airport daily.

It took three years, but Friday Harbor Airport received official clearance this week for the flight. Pending FAA approval, a Canadian airline hopes to start booking passengers within the next month.

A one-way ticket will start at $49 on a nine-passenger plane, Northstar Air Tours owner Henry Emson said. Round-trip fare on a ferry is $24.05 for an adult. With a car, it costs $129.75.

“That’s a pretty good deal, particularly as far as the U.S. passengers are concerned, because they’ve got leverage on the Canadian dollar,” Emson said. “It makes it a heck of alot cheaper.”

The main focus was figuring out a way to guarantee customs agents would be at the airport when passengers arrive. Pilots on chartered planes can request an agent, but there’s no guarantee that one will be available to clear passengers for entry.

The Port of Friday Harbor agreed to provide CBP office space at the airport, and San Juan County and the Town of Friday Harbor paid $30,000 for security equipment and to remodel office space. Officers will be stationed for a few hours in the morning and afternoon, which will make it easier for pilots on private planes, too.

“We’re in a remote part of the state where we’re closer to Canada than the [mainland] United States, so we spend a lot of time with our cohorts across the border,” Hughes said. “It was a mutually agreed-upon goal.”

For Hughes, the new flight means shorter business trips — and a new plan for Valentine’s Day.

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“Many people in our community like to experience our neighbors in Victoria,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll be there a lot.”

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