Cascadia Air, based in Campbell River, has launched its small commuter airline for emergency runs during the coronavirus pandemic. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

New Vancouver Island airline eyes small airports for charter flights

Cascadia Air launches new airline despite COVID-19 challenges

A new airline from Campbell River is interested in using Port Alberni’s regional airport for charter flights.

Cascadia Air launched earlier this month, foregoing commercial air-taxi flights in favour of providing rapid emergency air delivery—a program they call READY. The program is designed to support smaller remote communities across B.C. as they slowly recover from the social and economic disruption caused by COVID-19. Cascadia’s READY services comprise separate aircraft dedicated to carrying first responders or cargo supplies capable of landing in remote communities and smaller unpaved airstrips.

The company has a small fleet of three Piper PA-31 Navajo twin-engine aircraft as well as a single-engine aircraft that were obtained from an insolvent airline. The company recently put out a call for applications for employees.

The company’s prime focus is making its READY services available. They have equipped the aircraft with social distancing and strict cleaning guidelines in place due to COVID-19. Flights transporting personnel are operating at 60 percent of the aircraft’s seating capacity.

Once they begin regularly scheduled service, they intend to try and service smaller airports along the way, chief operating officer Jeremy Barrett explained. For example, they may have a regular flight that leaves Campbell River at a certain time and needs to arrive in Vancouver at a certain time, but they will also be able to stop in Port Alberni, Qualicum Beach, Tofino or other destinations to pick up people along the way.

“What we’re doing is an on-demand flight system,” Barrett said. “The thought process is if we were going from Campbell River to Port Alberni to Qualicum, there’s going to be multiple people going every day.”

Using the off-set airports—like Port Alberni—would be on an on-demand basis, he added. They hope to resume scheduled flights from Campbell River to Vancouver’s South Terminal in June.

Cascadia Air requires a letter of support from the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District in order to operate at the Alberni Valley airport, Barrett explained. The AVRA airport advisory committee approved the letter and it will be considered at the next ACRD board meeting, on May 27. Cascadia Air has also been invited to attend the ACRD meeting via Zoom.

Cascadia has already received approval from the ACRD to operate from the Long Beach Airport in Tofino, said Rob Williams, general manager of environmental services with the ACRD.

Barrett is encouraged by the support he has received so far. “I think our on-demand system is where it would work out well. It’s going to be based on supply and demand; we have no problem flying in there (Port Alberni) every day if the interest was there.

“With an 18,000 population base (in Port Alberni) there’s going to be some demand.”

The same would go with air cargo flights, he said.

The airline would like to keep costs down if possible. Their goal is to move people from one small community to other small communities, Barrett said.

“With our network you might take a plane to Vancouver and get onto another one that would take you to Pitt Meadows or Langley. We’re trying to move people from small centres to big centres or small centres to other small centres.”

One of the sticking points to getting regularly scheduled commuter air service at the AVRA is that it isn’t technically an airport—it is classified as an aerodrome right now, Williams acknowledged. There is a process to go through to certify an airport, and having a published GPS approach is one of the boxes that needs to be ticked. Port Alberni’s GPS approach application is still with Nav Canada.

“We’ve applied and we’re going through the steps to bring that to fruition,” he said.

The airport advisory committee will hire a consultant to help create a vision for the airport in the coming year, and certification could be part of that process, he added.

While not a certified airport, the AVRA can still be used for charter service or air cargo, flight training schools or aerial firefighting, airport manager Mark Fortune said. “What counts in Transport Canada’s world (as commuter service) is bums in seats on a regular service.”

A hybrid charter system such as the one Cascadia Air is offering “could work really well for the Valley.”

A “milk run” that only picks up passengers from different airports if there is a demand “could be a win-win. I applaud them for trying something different.”

airportsAlberni-Clayoquot Regional DistrictCampbell River