The owners of Pemberton-based Merlin Air are keeping some information under their hats until they can present it to the public at a May 1 open house in Whistler, but Lori Xavier confirmed that the charter airline is preparing to launch this summer out of Pemberton Airport.
“Everything is on schedule, as much as it can be for a major project of this size,” she said. “It’s a lengthy process and one that’s highly governed by Transport Canada. There are rules, more rules, regulations, and steps to go through… but the plan is to be in the air for the summer of 2008.”
Merlin Air has applied for an air taxi licence that would allow the airline to fly aircraft that hold up to nine passengers. The average wait for processing an application is 120 days, Xavier says, and Merlin has enlisted some of Canada’s most experienced safety and certification consultants to move the process forward.
For 2009, Merlin’s goal is to upgrade their licence to allow up to 19 passengers per flight.
According to Xavier, the goal is to ramp up service through the summer of 2009, and to be able to provide access to Whistler for travelers involved with the 2010 Olympics from airports around B.C., including Vancouver, Victoria, Pitt Meadows, Boundary Bay, Chilliwack, Langley, Kelowna and Kamloops. Merlin Air is in the process of signing landing agreements with airports across the province.
“Kamloops and Kelowna are four and five hours from Whistler, but we can make the flight in 45 minutes,” said Xavier. “A lot of these airports are hubs for people flying in from other places, and people want the convenience of being able to travel the rest of the way to Whistler and the region by plane.”
Merlin Air will provide ground transportation from Pemberton to Whistler for their clients, but will enlist the help of other companies to help transport visitors once they’re able to fly larger planes.
Merlin Air also has an application pending with the Village of Pemberton to build a 1,600 square foot hangar and passenger terminal at Pemberton Airport. Because the company is still in lease negotiations, Xavier says the building likely won’t be available for the summer service. She is hopeful, however, that it can be built in time for winter.
“It’s quite important for winter because we have to store our planes somewhere, and there isn’t any space that’s currently available,” she said. “We’re obviously hoping this winter, but it doesn’t move our timetable.”
If necessary, Xavier says Merlin Air will rent space at another airport next winter to store planes — not an ideal situation, she admits, but the important thing is to be up and running.
“Our intention is to be flying into Pemberton all through next winter,” she said. “We don’t need the hangar to land at Pemberton Airport.”
The Lil’wat Nation and Mount Currie Band are also conducting an archaeological impact assessment for four airport land parcels that are in the process of being developed. Xavier does not believe that assessment will have a direct impact on Merlin’s lease application.
“Lil’wat Nation has been charged by the village (of Pemberton) to check out the site, and to our knowledge nobody has said yet that there are any issues. It’s something to be aware of, and we’re very aware of the process, but all we can do is to keep working on our application.”
Although the recent rise in the cost of fuel is making things difficult for air carriers, Xavier says their role as a charter airline does have some advantages.
“Will there be an effect? Yes and no,” she said. “We don’t have huge airplanes, which keeps costs down, and we’re also a charter airline — if we don’t have a plane full of people then we don’t fly, or we use a smaller plane. If you’re a company that offers regularly scheduled flights then you have to fly no matter how many people are in the plane.”
The Whistler open house is at Millennium Place, May 1, from 7 to 9 p.m., with doors opening at 6:30 p.m. The meeting is open to everyone, and Lori and Fred Xavier are encouraging people to attend to learn more about the airline and the impact they hope to have on the local tourism industry. They also want to address any perceived negatives.
The Whistler meeting will also feature guest speaker Glen Estill, a proponent of wind energy and both president and CEO of Sky Generation Inc. Sky Generation currently operates two wind farms and nine turbines in Ontario, providing power for roughly 4,500 homes.
There will also be an open house in Pemberton on May 6 at the Pemberton Valley Golf Course. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.; the meeting is from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.