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Pique n' your interest

Oh air services where art thou?

A strange thing happened at a Pemberton council meeting two weeks ago.

Bill Neale arrived with his 10-year-business plan for the airport, gave his presentation and then left so he could fly home.

It was supposed to be a pivotal moment in the development of the airport, but I couldn’t help be feel that it wasn’t that at all.

Neale clearly has a wealth of knowledge but the council’s reaction to his report left this journalist with only one glaring question, "So now what?"

That question was asked of the council at the end of that meeting and even then their response was rather flabbergasting.

It was flabbergasting because for a few glaring seconds there wasn’t a response.

After 15 years of deliberation and hundreds of meetings, the awarding of the 2010 Olympics and now a juicy report on the future of the airport – and the council wasn’t too sure what they were going to do next.

Mayor Warner finally said the council would now review the report and that it was in "no hurry to make a decision".

So rather than wait for the council, in the past week my goal was to find out exactly what could/should come next.

To expand on this, I’ll first explain who/what is involved in the Pemberton airport saga.

The short version is that there’s four people or organizations involved: Pemberton council, Prime Air, Intrawest and now Neale and his report.

Neale is a consultant and the only one on the aforementioned list who doesn’t have a problem; the others have problems, starting with the Pemberton council.

The council’s biggest problem is money.

Pemberton councilors get paid about $15 a day.

For $15 a day they get to deal with all kinds of disputes and the airport, which has the potential to be one of the region’s biggest draw-cards come 2010.

Pemberton council also needs more money so they can:

• Employ an airport manager to close this deal;

• Commission other studies into the airport;

• Get the airport classified by Transport Canada for passenger services (at the moment the airport is only classified for chartered services).

The best way for the council to get more money for the airport is for the airport to start making money, which brings us to Prime Air. (See a Catch-22 emerging here?)

Prime Air is a company that specializes in Fixed Based Operations, which means they manage most of the stuff, like refueling, that happens on the ground at an airport.

Prime Air signed an agreement with Pemberton in 1993 and the hope was that Prime Air would get some planes flying.

Obviously, things have not gone to plan.

Former CEO Blaine Haug has been guiding Prime Air since the beginning but, just recently, things changed and now an American chiropractor, Albert Bruno, is running the show.

Bruno admits he’s had no experience with airports but he maintains that "it’s still just a business".

Haug, Bruno and several others went to the council about a month ago with a proposal to start air services on Nov. 1.

Haug said later that Prime wanted council’s approval by July 15. This was a problem for several reasons.

After 11 years as fixed base operator but with no scheduled air service, Prime Air wanted council to make a decision in three weeks.

The second problem is that Prime Air doesn’t actually need council’s approval to start air services because they got that approval in 1993.

What Prime Air really wants is more airport land.

And they want more land because the more land they have the more secure their operation will be.

But they’ve got little hope of getting anything from the council unless they can make the council some money (there’s that catch-22 again).

The best news – and this is something that could fix the catch-22 situation – is that Bruno wants to start a charter service in August.

If this is successful then everyone may start making some money.

This attempt is also important because the longer this situation draws on, the more likely it is that Prime will be cut out of any airport deal as there is still significant space on the airfield that hasn’t been leased yet.

Prime has an agreement with the council but this agreement does not stop other airport enterprises coming in, negotiating their own land deal with the council and then starting their own operations.

Which brings me to a very important enterprise: Intrawest.

Intrawest’s problem is that it’s a multinational organization that’s been talking multinational ideas to a village council.

Instead of starting small, Intrawest wants to extend the runway to almost two kilometres and revamp the area so it can accommodate 737 aircraft carrying 150 people at a time.

But Bill Neale says that just "doesn’t make sense" in an area which is surrounded by mountains, creeks and golf courses.

The other problem Intrawest has is that it wants an Airport Authority to control the airport, rather than the Village of Pemberton.

Neale doesn’t agree with this either and neither does the council.

The only other aspect of this that deserves a mention is that there appears to be a communication problem.

For instance, three days after Neale’s report was released, Intrawest’s public relations manager and Bruno from Prime Air still hadn’t seen it.

Both parties said they had tried to get a copy of it from council.

The problem is that Pemberton council doesn’t have money to employ hoards of marketing people to send e-mails whenever organizations decide not to turn up to important meetings.

So I think a good first step would be if everyone started becoming more aware of everyone else’s capabilities, needs and limitations.

That way maybe the people of Pemberton and Whistler and, for that matter, Seattle and Vancouver, might get an air service some time before 3010.