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The Duty Free Swindle

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I have always believed what my father told me. “Just because it says ‘Duty Free’ does not mean it’s Profit Free.” The Guardian has an article that shows how duty free shops in England have been pocketing much of the VAT rebate that people travelling to places outside the EU should be getting.

Practice varies in other countries, but at least many airports now offer free wifi. So if you are whiling away the time and find the Duty Free shop to be a relief from the crowded departure lounge you can at least check on prices back at BC Liquor stores of things you might want to buy. On our last trip back through Kingsford Smith (that is the name of the Sydney International Airport SYD) I was pleasantly surprised to find Australian vintage port. This, of course, is not on offer here. But it was attractively priced compared to what is – and it tastes remarkably good. Equally Dalwhinnie 15 year old single malt was on sale, and at a price for one litre what we pay for 0.75 litre here.

BUT the price of a bottle of alcohol in any retail store is still mostly tax and markups of various kinds. There is some analysis on this page but it is in Euros and is a bit out of date. But the principle holds. There is a direct correlation in the mind of the consumer between quality and price: if it is that cheap, there must be something wrong with it. For many consumer items, price is used as an indicator of quality and this is also the case in Duty Free shops!

As an aside, I do want to praise YVR for changing their policy. At one time, whenever on my way to visit my family in England I was disappointed to find that the shelves in the international terminal duty free shop did not carry BC wines. There was Canadian wine, but it came from the Niagara region of Ontario. That is no longer the case, perhaps because enough people like me complained.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 30, 2015 at 4:41 pm

Posted in Air Travel, airport

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The Airport and The Ferries

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Two quite different modes – and the same issue.

The BC Liberals are currently sitting on their hands about the Macatee report on BC Ferries – which ought to make Vaughan Palmer’s exit interview with David Hahn worth watching. (Voice of BC Shaw Cable only 8pm tonight). The policy has been for the corporation to move to user pay – which means that fares have risen, and at the same time loadings have fallen. The corporation now says it needs to cut service to make the books balance – which some people might think would reduce use further, but the corporation points to empty ferries on supposedly socially necessary services.

I was thinking about doing another ferry piece – but maybe I’ve written all I have to say on that – when the news broke of the President of YVR talking to the Board of Trade announcing increased user fees to pay for yet more airport expansion. YVR also has a commercial remit – and has been steadily expanding since it was cut loose by the feds.

Mr. Berg said the “geographical advantage” that YVR has traditionally had, of being the closest, major West Coast terminal to Asia, is being rapidly eroded as new technology gives jets greater range.

Flights can now go direct to Asia from as far east as Toronto and Chicago, he said, showing a map that illustrated how jets arc over the polar region to drop down into a growing number of airports in China.

“With new aircraft and navigational technology, a lot more cities are accessible from Asia today. And these cities have figured out what YVR’s founders knew. Serving as a gateway can bring vast economic benefits to their communities … this [is a] dramatically different competitive landscape than we [faced] 20 years ago,” he said.

Mr. Berg said Edmonton is opening 12 new international gates next month and Calgary is building a new runway and 22 new gates for 2015.

“Neither Calgary nor Edmonton has the passenger traffic to fill those gates today – so guess whose traffic they are looking at?” he said.

Mr. Berg said YVR, which last year was named North America’s best airport at the World Airport Awards in Copenhagen, is fighting back.

But is raising fees the way to win more passengers? I will say that the airport is now much better than when the new arrangements were introduced, and when I visit other places, the contrast to the airport I departed from is usually very instructive. Not many places, for instance, offer free wifi all over the terminal. There is indeed a wider range of food available – but that I think is mostly because so many airlines now charge for airline food, an it is usually much better to buy before you board, not just on price but quality. That being said, the pulled pork sandwich on a fresh baguette I bought at Cancun Airport was better than anything I have eaten at YVR. And I carried half it onto the plane since it was so large, even though on an international flight food is provided at no extra charge. (On Air Transat the wine was free too, even if they did spill most of it on my nice clean khakis.)

Nothing is reported about the expected impact of airport expansion on the environment which might be a bit odd given that this weekend there is to be a protest about the jet fuel pipeline the airport’s fuel supplier wants to build across Richmond.  Other places – like London – have had to look further afield as local protests have stopped expansion i.e. the new proposed new runway at Heathrow. Generally we seem to be remarkably quiet about the impact of YVR. The last major set of complaints I can recall prior to the fuel pipeline coming from some new residents of Richmond who ought to have realized that they were buying property under a flight path.

But the similarity of Han’s and Berg’s approach to their respective jobs – only commercial results matter – make the user pay more should surely have similar results. What the Edmonton and Calgary expansions will do is enable people from those places to make direct flights rather than change planes. Indeed, we seem to be back in the transit debate territory about the inconvenience of transfers and the need for a one seat ride. But in the airline business, the original ploy of making everyone fly through a hub was quite quickly countered with airlines that flew smaller, cheaper to operate planes on direct flights. Indeed on sites like hipmunk you can readily see how competition for your business stacks up  using an indicator they call “agony”. The direct flight moves to the top even if it isn’t cheapest.

I am not at all sure that it is just the airport you leave from that decides the route – but certainly the airport operators at Abbotsford and Bellingham recognize that for a growing number of people having an alternative to YVR is attractive. I look at the border line ups, additional driving/bus or train ride and probable additional hotel night for an early morning flight as being significant deterrents to using SEATAC – but obviously if there is enough trade to fill a direct bus service, enough people disagree with me.

The other phrase that popped into my mind was the one that was used when Britain decided to nationalize parts of its transportation system “wasteful competition”. If we really are facing a continuing economic depression in North America, and pressures on airlines for reduce their environmental impact continue (such as the EU’s imposition of a carbon fee on jet fuel)  the airports could be competing for a static or even shrinking market. So those user fees could be paying for under utilized facilities.

Maybe I just pick times to fly when the planes are cheap, but I am not aware of any congestion at YVR right now. And quite often when I do find myself through the security theatre and with time on my hands, I tend to notice that most of the shops and services are in fact closed. So they may well be priced at the same level as places in town – or even offer things I can’t buy there (at one time book publishers would have things in airport bookshops long before the local stores) but if they aren’t open, my wallet will also stay closed.

For flights within BC the fee remains the same. And an extra $5 on the sort of money that has to be paid these days for longer haul flights may well not register with users. After all, the amount for fees and taxes now usually exceeds the quoted fare. And people are willing to pay more for better, more convenient services. But even so, it seems to me that Berg could be making the same mistake that Hahn did. Except YVR answers to no-one, unlike BC Ferries, which was supposed to be independent but turned out not to be.

UPDATE  31 Jan     It is well worth reading Bill Tieleman’s opinion piece in today’s Tyee

Written by Stephen Rees

January 26, 2012 at 11:30 am

Vancouver Airport Fuel Delivery Project

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I went to an open house last night, run by the provincial Environmental Assessment Office. The project has been around for a while (the Green Party tried to get people to pay attention to it at the last election). The idea actually goes back  much further and has already been rejected by Richmond twice, according to Harold Steves. The proponents are the consortium of airlines who make up the Vancouver Airport Fuel Facilities Corporation who have set up a website to promote the idea. The boards around the conference room, and the slides used by the presenter at the meeting, go into more detail than the brochure provided at the meeting. Probably the most informative document is the Project Description. On page 14 it describes the screening of fourteen different options from which this proposal emerged.

I think it is fair to say that this gave rise to many of the concerns expressed at the meeting. Most people wanted to point out that there are better ways of protecting the environment than trying to clean it up after there has been an oil spill. The general preference I think is that we don’t put the sensitive habitats at risk needlessly. So the assumptions and methodology used to select this project from the other alternatives are critical. But that will not be the subject of this EA. Both provincial and federal representatives present spent the first 40 minutes of the meeting explaining how their EAs work. And then the proponent got to do his dog and pony show – with questions limited and restricted – and the only answer ever given was “put your concerns in writing and we will answer after the EA is finished”.

I was surprised that the officials even decided to go for a public meeting format. An open house is usually preferred since opponents do not get a microphone, and cannot this let everyone else know what they are talking about. The meeting ran over time. The tactic of the officials and proponent to be be as dull as possible and bore people did not work. Most people stayed to get their word in. The project manager for the project spoke in a soporific monotone and avoided talking about any specific figures that might get quoted back at him.  Yet is was the claims that are made to justify the project where he was weakest. For instance, it was repeatedly said – and is also in the project description – that the current system is “at capacity”. As a number of people pointed out that is not true: the pipeline pumps are only used intermittently, as there is not enough tank storage at the airport (it already being expanded). But any questions about the existing system were deflected by trotting out a lawyer who said that as the current system is owned by Trans Mountain and not VAFFC, they do not have to answer questions about it.

The other obvious option – the use of the existing rail facility at Cherry Point refinery to load trains that could get to the existing rail sidings along River Road where a transfer to a much shorter pipe connection would need to be built – was dismissed out of hand. It is not even specifically addressed among the 14 options (only rail from Alberta was considered) but the project manager asserted it would be “too expensive”. There are, of course, no specific cost figures for any of the options, and when pinned on that point he waffled saying that the final cost of the preferred option could not be determined until its exact configuration was finalized (i.e. the route of the pipe within Richmond). VAFFC have already bought the property on the South Arm in expectation of proceeding.

The other assumptions – about constant growth of traffic at YVR and improvements in aircraft fuel efficiency not being enough to reduce the need for the project – were also not defended. They just came from “other sources” (YVR and Transport Canada) and thus could not be questioned.

Much was made of the fact that the project is not big enough to trigger a provincial EA but the proponent volunteered for one due to local concerns. Well, while technically true, a federal EA is triggered by the proposals use of navigable waterways and federal land (owned by the Port) so one was inevitable, so they might as well go for a combined EA. Fortunately for them, they do not put themselves in much hazard by so doing, since (despite the claims made by provincial officials) BC’s EA process is largely toothless. Some projects just give up, but very few are ever denied a certificate. It’s all about mitigation. The great strength of the opponents is that if fuel delivery were done some other way, mitigation might be much less. The problem is that the EA process does not have to test this assertion. It’s this project or nothing. No other option gets looked at.

Map showing terminal and proposed alternate routes

VAFFC Proposal

For the proponents, their major concern is that they have the ability to go to as many suppliers as possible. They do not want to be in thrall to any one supplier – or delivery system. To some extent, since they are the only customer for the existing pipe, they are using the proposal to put leverage on their suppliers. That concern is actually missing from the matrix used to select the final option but clearly weighs heaviest with the airlines. And it far outweighs all the other concerns.

If we had a truly rigorous EA process each option would be evaluated properly – not just screened out by the proponent before the process actually starts. It is this use of a coarse, and unverifiable “sieve” that gives rise to most of the concerns. Involving the public late, and declining to go into details about how this project is justified, is simply inflammatory. Unfortunately for the proponent – who has been diligently working with governments and first nations – the public has to be consulted. And they can detect very easily when they are being fobbed off.

My prediction is that as more people realize what their homes are going to be exposed to – and memories of that pipeline rupture in Burnaby are fresh in their minds – opposition is bound to grow. As those people realize that the options are not open to discussion, they will get angrier. Richmond is quite clear in its opposition to the project. The EA process will probably certify it, but I doubt that it can mollify those who feel that their interests have been protected. And, of course, for those concerned with the ecology of the Fraser delta, they have been disregarded for so many projects for so long, I am surprised that they still come out to such meetings.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 15, 2010 at 8:11 am

Paying More for Flights Eases Guilt, Not Emissions

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There is a hard hitting article in the New York Times this morning, that rubbishes current carbon offset programs linked to flying.

“The carbon offset has become this magic pill, a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card,” Justin Francis, the managing director of Responsible Travel, one of the world’s largest green travel companies to embrace environmental sustainability, said in an interview. “It’s seductive to the consumer who says, ‘It’s $4 and I’m carbon-neutral, so I can fly all I want.’ ”

Offsets, he argues, are distracting people from making more significant behavioral changes, like flying less.

Except that all the airlines that I have seen reports from recently are noticing greatly reduced demand for air travel. Due to the recession, of course, and probably not that many people are deciding to fly less to save the planet. Though some clearly are.

Guy Dauncey in promotional material promoting his new book observes

Flying represents 2.5% of the cause of climate change. The global livestock industry has a 700% greater impact, causing up to 18% of the warming.

I did not buy any carbon offsets for my bacon sandwich, but I did buy some for my trip to UK in February. It seems clear I did not pay nearly enough:

offsetting the emissions of a flight from London to New York would probably require an extra fee of $200 to $300, far above what any airline is now charging.

But this is what I was told

Your Zerofootprint Offsets purchase represents 1.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

The Zerofootprint team would like to thank you for your carbon purchase. Thinking about your lifestyle in terms of its carbon footprint and doing something about it is an important step towards living a sustainable lifestyle and fighting climate change. The $25.60 you have contributed to offset your flight from Vancouver, Vancouver to London, Heathrow will help sustain the important work of supporting Canada’s forests.

Carbon priced at $16 a tonne seems to be a bit cheap – given the cost of repairing the damage that it is going to cause. The effects we are seeing now are not due to current CO2 emissions but those of twenty years ago, and thanks to the “tipping points” we are now seeing the marginal cost of each additional tonne of CO2 is going to be much more expensive in its impact.

But even knowing that, and being environmentally aware, does not make me decide to give up the opportunity of seeing my sister. Just as I still drive a car for trips that could be made by transit but only at double the time and much inconvenience. And I have started the practice of a weekly meatless day – but as much out of concern for my health as for its effect on methane emissions from Alberta steers.

In other places on the web, and not so far very much on this blog, there is a heated debate going on about how much we are going to have to cut back to avoid not the 2℃ of warming  we have been hoping to restrain ourselves for, but the 6℃ that now seems likely by the end of the century if we don’t get our act together at Copenhagen. Much discussion revolves around how people can be persuaded to change their behaviour – and how effective that might be in a country that is determined not to see any reduction in our GDP or production of oil from the tar sands. My choice to go home for my birthday seems trivial compared to Stephen Harper’s choice to do all he can to prevent any agreement on carbon emission reductions which might hurt his friends’ pockets. But I bought the offset ayway. No, I do not view that as a some equivalent to a Papal Indulgence that allows me to sin. Any more than my giving money to Oxfam or Unicef  over the years has changed the ongoing problems of starvation and child poverty. There is some impact – but I acknowledge that it is small and no doubt I could more. Which I think must be a very common view, since the sort of people who voluntarily impoverish themselves in order to take care of others are indeed very rare.

Justin Francis may well be right in his assessment of the effectiveness of the carbon offsets currently available – but simply cancelling the program is not going to make it any better. Children are still dying in Africa every day. Does that mean we should shut down Oxfam and Unicef?  Of course there needs to be better offset programs. Those who can afford to pay for seats in the front of the plane should be paying much more for their offsets – and then price of offsets is obviously going to rise. If it is cap and trade or carbon tax it is going to have to be draconian if it is to have enough impact in time to save humanity. But those who damn current efforts as too little and too late do not help at all to get more people on board voluntarily.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 18, 2009 at 1:55 pm

City says no to jet fuel plan

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Richmond News

I covered this during the election campaign when the Green Party held a media conference at Garry Point. I am pleased to see that the City of Richmond is also determined to fight this daft idea.

The problem is that “the pipeline through Richmond is subject to a provincial environmental review.” Which means that no matter how bad the idea it cannot actually be stopped by this process – though some applicants have been sufficiently shamed to withdraw. All a provincial EA gets to do is require “mitigation” or change some details – like alignments. The worth of the proposal itself is never tested or questioned.

The proposal is also based on the untenable idea that demand for aviation fuel at YVR will continue to grow. That simply cannot happen. Firstly, peak oil means that in future there will simply be less fuel available for aircraft. Currently there is no viable alternative to kerosene for jets – though Virgin is hoping it can get some biofuel into the mix, that in itself is problematic, and not necessarily carbon neutral. Air travel is in decline around the world, for when times get tough a lot of travel turns out be unnecessary. We are going to have to get used to the idea that importing fruit and vegetables, as well as fresh cut flowers, by air was always an extravagance – and now one that we cannot afford. 

But secondly the Fraser River still has some salmon runs. They may be pale shadows of what they once were, and more open pen fish farms are going to be an even greater challenge to young fry trying to migrate. But an oil spill would cause incredible damage to an irreplaceable habitat – and many species would be put at risk. And for what? So we can save a dollar or two on a trip to Cancun?

Written by Stephen Rees

June 3, 2009 at 9:36 pm

Air Canada: $50 Folding Bike Tax

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The following article was circulated to a couple of vancouver based cycling/transit lists. It originally comes from

www.ridethisbike.com

but I am going to paste the whoile thing here. Not because I take folding bikes with me everywhere, but because it offends me that Air Canada has a stupid policy. And the more people point this out to them – especially if you quote your Aeroplan number to them – the more they are likely to reconsider.

by Larry Lagarde

Imagine Lloyd Alter’s surprise and rage when checking in recently for a flight on Air Canada. He checks a bag that’s well within Air Canada’s dimensional and weight limits for checked baggage; yet, he’s hit with a $50 surcharge because the bag contains a folding bike.

Lloyd’s a conscientious air traveler. When he flies, he buys carbon offsets but he wanted to do more. Thus, to further reduce his carbon footprint when traveling, Lloyd got a Strida folding bike to reduce his dependence on rental cars and taxis.

So why was Lloyd upset? Air Canada’s baggage policy makes no sense and is inconsistent.

Senseless Baggage Policy
Air Canada imposes a 50 lb weight limit and 62″ linear dimensional limit on each checked bag. Some items (such as standard sized bicycles) typically exceed Air Canada’s weight & dimensional limits and are obviously subject to an overage fee; yet, the Strida is NOT your typical bike.

When folded, the Strida is very compact, taking up less than a third of the space needed for a full size bike and certainly within Air Canada’s 62″ linear dimensional limit. Packed inside its padded custom carry bag, the Strida and bag combo weigh about half of Air Canada’s 50 lb. max weight limit for checked bags. There are no special handling requirements either; the Strida goes on the luggage belt just like every other checked bag.

Inconsistent Baggage Policy
According to Air Canada, every bike is subject to a surcharge because it would be too difficult for check-in personnel to determine which bikes meet the dimensional & weight requirements (I guess the scale and measuring tape works for everything but bikes). Air Canada also argues that they charge for folding bikes because other major airlines do too. Naturally, Air Canada conveniently forgot that Southwest, Alaska and other airlines DO NOT charge for folding bikes (you can even take certain folding bikes into the cabin on Southwest as a carry on).

Insult To Injury: Air Canada’s LeaveLess
Air Canada promotes itself as an airline striving for a greener world. As part of their LeaveLess “environmental initiative,” Air Canada brags how they’re cutting greenhouse gas emissions by converting some of their ground vehicles to propane, etc. If they were serious though, the airline’s policies would encourage fliers to use folding bikes. Instead, they charge a fee that discourages use.

Given that folding bikes like the Strida
– emit NO greenhouse gases…
– are ideal for use with buses, trains and subways…
– meet airline dimension & weight standards…
the only logical conclusion is that Air Canada’s policy towards folding bikes is simply a way to generate revenue.

Convincing Air Canada to change their policy is simple: take action & complain. With all the competition out there and the state of the economy, Air Canada would be crazy not to listen.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 31, 2009 at 7:34 am

Posted in Air Travel, bicycles

End, don’t mend, the Transportation Security Administration

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The Christian Science Monitor

With a name like that, no-one is going to accuse them of favouring terrorists. But they have printed what I suspect a lot of us knew, but no-one else in the media seemed willing to publish

The TSA has always been a political, not practical, response to 9/11. It hassles us at checkpoints not because of penetrating insights on security or some brilliant breakthrough, but because politicians handed it power. Specialists in security didn’t invent the TSA; the Bush administration imposed it on us. So we might hope the incoming president would abolish this absurd agency.

In fact the TSA has not achieved anything except a boost for employment for people who would have a hard time getting any  sort of job elsewhere.  The only thing it has done is prevent people who present no threat at all from travelling by plane. The “no-fly” list is a gross abuse of power, and quite indefensible. There seems to be no appeal – no way to correct the inevitable cases of mistaken identity. And a niggling suspicion that it is a very easy way for the officious to make life difficult for those who would cast a stronger light on this make work project.

Mr Obama, please listen to the common sense of the CSM. You don’t need the TSA. The US never did. A land which calls itself “the land of the free” cannot tolerate this bumbling beuraucrcy any longer. Scrap it now.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 7, 2008 at 6:39 pm

Posted in Air Travel

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