In the eyes of Port Edward council, the issues facing the Prince Rupert airport come down to two things: Baggage and buses.
What started as a presentation by airport manager Rick Reed about the $7 million in improvements planned for the terminal building, runway and access road turned into a lengthy discussion around the service people in the region receive. During the conversation, Reed, Prince Rupert Airport Authority president Maureen Macarenko and airport authority member Shane Deinstadt joined council in expressing frustration with both Air Canada and the bus operations, which carry residents from Kaien Island to Digby Island, about the two most commonly identified issues people have with YPR.
Air Canada’s baggage
The biggest issue brought forward was the way Air Canada handles baggage.
Under the current system people arriving are required to carry their luggage onto the bus, unload it at the terminal and check it in at the airport, while people arriving need to pick up their luggage at the terminal and carry it to the bus to be loaded for the ferry trip. That, in the eyes of council, is unacceptable.
“It will never be a professional airport until you don’t have to touch your bag from Prince Rupert to Vancouver and back … company CEOs and corporation heads are the ones that are going to drive some of the growth, and they are saying ‘what the heck is this?’ I’m hearing it from people who arrive in town,” said Coun. Murray Kristoff.
“Air Canada upsets me to no end with how they treat us …. Hawkair is at least nice enough to check your bags. How do we get better service from Air Canada?” questioned Mayor Dave MacDonald.
Those involved in the operation of the airport say they have gone to extraordinary lengths to arrange a similar system to Hawkair for Air Canada in Prince Rupert, but in the end it comes down to a question of liability.
“They were offered free space in downtown Prince Rupert, they already have free transport for their agents to the airport, but it’s not about the money. It’s about the liability of the bag,” explained Deinstadt, who noted Air Canada is a needed airline for Prince Rupert due to international connections they provide.
“They hand the bags over to passengers at the airport to absolve themselves of any further liability … it’s been like a broken record for them,” said Reed.
“For a lot of people, it’s not viewed as an Air Canada problem but as an airport problem … they are making good money out of Prince Rupert and they still have this arrogant attitude of saying ‘we operate airport-to-airport’,” added Macarenko.
While Kristoff said this perception of unprofessionalism is something that drives travellers to Terrace to fly, Reed said he doesn’t believe that is top of mind for Air Canada.
“As a community we care about that. As a company, they don’t. They are making a lot of money here, so they figure they can let that slippage happen … they will probably pick up those people flying into Terrace anyway,” he said.
Air Canada did not immediately respond to requests for comment from the Northern View.
“Prison bus” blues
The other issue brought forward by Port Edward council was the buses that take people to and from the airport and the initial impression it gives visitors to town.
“It’s nice that we are getting a new airport, but there are a lot of people upset with the buses they are putting people on. Even Your Worship [Prince Rupert Mayor Jack Mussallem in the audience] has referred to them as ‘prison buses’,” said Mayor MacDonald, with Coun. Kristoff taking aim at the lack of heat on the bus and the length of time needed to defog the windows following the cross-harbour sailing.
“You could certainly sell that as a safety issue … but what is in place now is absolutely stone age,” he said.
While acknowledging he has joked about “putting you on a prison bus and giving you a harbour tour” with some visitors, Mussallem said the fact is sometimes the marine conditions require the use of the old buses.
“Sometimes we can use other buses that are warmer and have more comfortable seats, but some times we have to use the Blue Bird buses because of the 24-foot tides,” he explained, noting the city has had discussions with Nexen about possibly improving airport access as a means of accessing Grassy Point for the proposed LNG terminal at the site.
The idea of performance conditions being put into future contracts was brought up, but Deinstadt said the response from the current providers was not a positive one.
“I did talk with the vice-president of the company …. essentially he said if you don’t like what is here, we can take it all away,” he said.
New airport, same issues
Macarenko said concerns about the service at the airport are nothing new and that the airport authority continues to look into possible solutions.
“We conducted a survey about the airport, and it showed that if the issues with buses and baggage were addressed, we wouldn’t hear people complaining about the Prince Rupert Airport,” she said.
In wrapping up the discussion, Kristoff told the members of the airport authority that the status quo was not adequate for the growth expected on the North Coast in the years ahead.
“Something has to change. This is just not enough for what is happening in the region today,” he said.
“We’re going to end up with a new building, but the same [expletive deleted] service.”