There's a lot more emphasis on the question of safety at the problem-plagued Vancouver Harbour Flight Centre, following the latest legal move.
The Crown corporation that's involved in the dispute - B.C. Pavilion Corp. - has filed a countersuit to the flight centre's lawsuit with a claim that revolves around the safety of the new docks alongside the Vancouver Convention Centre.
PavCo's suit, filed with the knowledge and authority of Jobs, Tourism and Innovation Minister Pat Bell, puts a new emphasis on an issue that's been booted around for months during the fight over the terminal.
PavCo is the landlord that tendered out the job of building and operating a new float-plane terminal to a consortium, known as VHFC.
VHFC spent $21 million building the terminal. But the major airline expected to use it balked at the skyhigh user charges proposed to recoup the investment.
Harbour Air cried foul and is refusing to use the terminal, staying put at its current terminal a few hundred metres away.
That leaves the flight centre with just two small users and a huge hole where their revenues were supposed to be. Principals have estimated they are losing $250,000 a month.
VHFC sued PavCo and the airlines last month, demanding that the government shut down the existing terminal and force the airline over to one it says it built exactly to PavCo's specifications.
That suit says the airlines are misrepresenting safety issues.
Now PavCo has fired back, with a suit that hinges almost entirely on safety worries.
The key point in PavCo's suit is the claim - unproven at this point - that "the terminal has never been safe or functional for float-plane operations, including because there is an elevated aircraft-dock contact risk in parts of the terminal which may cause property damage and personal injury.
"As parts of the terminal have never been safe or functional for float-plane operations, the terminal has never become complete or operational."
When this argument started building, it looked like Harbour Air was a lot more upset about the user fee facing passengers.
The firm was never supportive of a privately owned, for-profit terminal in the first place.
But now the government has endorsed the safety worries, which will make the argument even more complicated than it already is.
Bell started alluding to the safety worries last month, after VHFC filed suit.
That raised some eyebrows, given that two smaller operators have been using it for the past 11 months. Bell said their smaller planes are okay.
The concerns are apparently arising out of an independent study done by an engineering firm - Ausenco Sandwell. Bell said last month their report "indicates there are challenges with other aircraft types that need to be addressed.
"It would be inappropriate for PavCo ... to require movement of aircraft to a facility that still has question marks as to its safety."
That's a departure from last year, when he was urging all users to migrate over.
As far as Victoria travellers who make up much of the passenger load are concerned, the legal tangle is good news. As long as Harbour Air stays at its existing "temporary" terminal, passengers are safe from the alleged hazards at the new dock, and safe from the $9.50-a-head service charge to use it.
But as far as taxpayers are concerned, this is getting ridiculous.
A $21-million terminal ordered by the government is 97 per cent vacant, because the airlines it was built for won't use it.
The builder says it could have done it for half that price, but had to follow PavCo's specifications.
Now it wants Harbour Air forced over to the new terminal, while PavCo and the airline are claiming the new terminal isn't safe.
The government has spent $150,000 to date on the mediation effort and the safety study. The mediation has clearly failed, and Bell said there's lots more work to do on the the safety report. The firm has to study wave action well into the summer months to conclude its report, he said.
And the report is unlikely to become public, since it's quite likely to turn into evidence for the lawsuits.
It's shaping up to be a high-flying botch that will take years to sort out.
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