Takeover of harbour airport being explored

 

The Greater Victoria Harbour Authority will meet with Ottawa to discuss taking over control of the Victoria harbour airport.

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Authority chief executive Curtis Grad was careful to stress the talks with Transport Canada, which manages the air and marine traffic in the harbour through the harbour master, were exploratory and should be considered “very preliminary.” He added the talks were about clarifying issues around divestiture of the asset.

“It’s a matter of sitting down and talking through the issues, finding out what they have in mind and going through our concerns,” he said.

Transport Canada floated the idea of divesting itself of the Victoria harbour airport in July, as it hopes to put it in the hands of a local body. The federal department has been pushing to be a regulator only of the country’s airports.

When the idea came to light earlier this summer, the harbour authority didn’t sound keen on taking control, noting the harbour airport was far from a profit-making enterprise with little in the way of “cost-recovery mechanisms.”

At the time, the harbour authority noted there was little information on what it costs to run the airport, its revenue stream and how a new operation would be structured.

Those questions remain.

“Some of the questions we’ll be asking are around the financial aspects, the costs associated with it and how they envision addressing that transfer,” Grad said. He would also like clarification around the draft regulations that have governed the airport for the last 12 years. “What are the rules for whomever is managing the airport in the future,” said Grad.

Two weeks ago, the harbour authority’s board of directors gave its management team approval to explore the possibility of taking over the harbour airport, in collaboration with key players like the Esquimalt Nation and the Songhees Nation. “We’re going into these discussions cautiously, with our eyes wide open,” said Grad.

If the GVHA sounds cautious about the prospect of taking over the airport, one of the key stakeholders admits to being very nervous. Randy Wright, senior vice-president of Harbour Air, said he doesn’t like the sound of anyone other than Transport Canada running the airport. “It’s run very well by Transport Canada. We’re not excited about it being switched over because it’s a very sophisticated organization,” he said. “From our standpoint, uppermost in mind is the safety of the travelling public and ensuring consumer costs don’t rise. My worry is there are a lot of agendas on that (harbour authority) board. But we will work with any duly constituted authority that may operate the harbour.”

A time frame for discussions with Transport Canada has not been identified as there is no set date for divestiture.

Grad, who called Ottawa’s plans to divest itself of the airport “unfinished business,” expects talks to begin within the next month or so.

“We are one of the few left, there were 126 airports divested since the mid 1990s. There are only 18 left, one of which is the Victoria harbour airport,” he said.

The harbour airport is a different operation from the Victoria Airport Authority, which runs Victoria International Airport.

The Victoria Airport Authority pays rent under a long-term lease to Transport Canada after an operations transfer in the late 1990s.

The harbour airport has few capital assets and does not have the same opportunity for expansion and revenue generation that is available to YYJ.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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