Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Posts Tagged ‘Vancouver Airport

The Airport and The Ferries

with 15 comments

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

with 6 comments

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