Scheduled flights will be flying in and out of the Alberni Valley daily before the month is up, thanks to a deal between the Port Alberni Port Authority and Pacific Seaplanes.
“This agreement is an integral step towards Pacific Seaplanes’ goal of providing expanded seaplane services to the west coast of Vancouver Island,” said Pacific Seaplanes CEO Randy Hanna.
Having had success with flights from Bamfield to Vancouver, Hanna wondered if Port Alberni flights could be similarly successful.
“We started services in 2015 from Vancouver to Bamfield and during the summer we constantly flew over the Alberni Valley,” said Hanna.
“I began to wonder why there was no service there.”
It wasn’t his first time flying in the region; Hanna had flown as a pilot with the Port Alberni-based Pacific Rim Airlines decades prior.
“There was an active air service at the time—scheduled flights to Kildonan, Bamfield, Barkley Sound to Alberni,” he said.
Seeing an opportunity, Hanna met with the port authority to discuss possibilities.
“We discovered that we had some great common interests.”
Negotiations began in September 2015 and a deal was reached just before Christmas—much to both Hanna and PAPA’s excitement.
“Attracting seaplane scheduled service here has been a priority of the port and certainly on my desk,” said PAPA director of public relations and business development Dave McCormick.
“Those finger floats off of Centennial Pier were specifically designed to accommodate seaplanes.”
The finger floats off the north side of Centennial Pier are ready to go without any further work, he added.
“They’re good to go. They’ve proven that they work before.”
Getting seaplanes to utilize Centennial Pier on a scheduled basis has been a project years in the making, said City of Port Alberni economic development manager Pat Deakin.
“We began seriously chasing after seaplanes in 2013,” said Deakin.
Although the pier’s main purpose was to act as a breakwater for the ships at Fisherman’s Harbour, Deakin said that it was built with hopes that it would be a multi-use structure.
“Once the pier and the fingers were in place, we knew we had something that would work.”
However, years of pounding the pavement and sending out requests for proposal didn’t immediately garner results.
“I’m very happy the port authority was able to secure Pacific Seaplanes,” he said.
To McCormick, it’s yet another way to fulfill the port authority’s main purpose.
“Being a port, our fundamental mandate is to facilitate the movement of goods and people.”
Regular seaplane service fills a gap in Port Alberni, he added.
“It simply brings more visibility and more opportunity to fulfill our mandate and bring a service that’s been lacking in the community for a long time.”
Port Alberni has long had only one route in and out of the Valley and that route can be both long and treacherous in poor conditions. McCormick said that having another route was key for economic development.
“Accessibility is key for any opportunities and for any investment attraction—as well as attracting new residents to the community,” he said.
“It doesn’t just serve business purposes but also a number of social purposes as well.”
While poor weather will affect seaplanes service, Hanna said that a year of flying to Bamfield gives him confidence that the scheduled flights will remain mostly uninterrupted.
The new development will bring not only people but much needed jobs to Port Alberni, according to Hanna.
“We’ll begin looking for customer service agents as we develop the service. That’s the whole point of the development—to create jobs as well as to support the community in whatever ways we can with both air service and tourism.”
Deakin sees the seaplanes boosting economic development in more than one sector.
“It’s huge for many sectors of the economy,” he said.
“Tourism operators, for people going fishing, kayaking out in the Broken Group [Islands]. Someone can walk off the float plane and jump aboard a chartered fishing boat.”
A short flight straight from Vancouver is important to developers trying to decide if they should invest in Port Alberni.
“Float plane service would make it a lot easier for developers and investors to get here and get back to Vancouver,” Deakin said. There’s also an added convenience for companies already here like Catalyst Paper, he added, who will be able to fly between their Vancouver offices and their Port Alberni paper mill in 35-40 minutes.
Connecting Port Alberni to the Lower Mainland is key, McCormick said.
“As a region, all of Vancouver Island and certainly Port Alberni is becoming that much more connected to the Lower Mainland and the rest of British Columbia. The more options and the easier it is to make those connections, the better chance our opportunities will have to reach their potential.”
Scheduled seaplane services could also give momentum to other scheduled air service.
“Some [commercial air travel] providers have questions the willingness of the market to pay for a flight from here to Vancouver,” said Deakin. If Pacific Seaplanes does well here, that could encourage other commercial operators to come to the Alberni Valley Regional Airport.
While Deakin was quick to point out that the main reason for extending the runway was to get investment from aerospace companies, he’d be happy to see commercial air travel come to the Alberni Valley too.
“Bit by bit the planks for a stronger economy are being put into place.”
Deakin thinks that direct flight to Port Alberni could stop people headed to the Comox Valley or Nanaimo for flights.
“There’s a huge number of people who drive to Nanaimo and take Sea Air or Harbour Air or fly out of the Nanaimo airport,” Deakin said.
“Add all of those up and you’ll see that the numbers are here and willing to pay.”
“Success brings more success. People want to line up behind winners and we’re taking charge of our opportunities and taking charge of our future at every level,” McCormick said.
It’s now up to Port Alberni to keep the service, he added.
“At this stage we’ve attracted the company and it’s going to be up to the market to justify those investments here and make this successful.”
Daily scheduled flights will begin by the end of January and if all goes well, more will come in the spring.
“It’s a terrific advancement for the community,” Hanna said.