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Merlin Air still plans to fly this year

Charter airline finds a home at Pemberton Regional Airport

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Pemberton-based Merlin Air got once step closer to operating a charter airline in the region after recently inking two critical deals.

On Sept. 16, the Village of Pemberton approved a 30-year lease for Merlin Air, the first commercial lease at the airport in more than 10 years. The lease establishes Merlin Air as an air taxi, and provides lots on the east taxiway of 48,000 square feet to build a main hangar and passenger terminal, and a second hangar with aircraft maintenance facilities and other services.

On Oct. 14, Merlin secured a lease of the largest hangar at Pemberton Airport, formerly occupied by Pemberton Helicopter. The short-term lease with the current operator provides a temporary home for Merlin Air operations heading into the winter season.

Merlin Air also confirmed that they will provide free ground transportation to the airport from Whistler and Pemberton.

Lori Xavier, who co-owns and operates Merlin Air with her husband, Fred, says the next big step is to obtain their air taxi licence from Transport Canada.

“We’re still expecting to fly in 2008, so it’s coming along — just a couple more things to put together until we can get our planes on the ground,” she said. “We’ve spent a lot of time securing our lease and facilities… we have a chief pilot, and we’re going to be getting a plane or two in to start winter operations. The target is to have our licence in November and fly in December, and really test our winter operations in time for Christmas.

“This business model has never been done before and we’re determined to make it work.”

Xavier says they have a consultant working on their licence, and that everything is going well in terms of their application. They are not allowed to market their services until the licence is finalized, but she says they are ready to hit the ground running by offering charter service from more than a dozen airports around the province. In November, Xavier says Merlin will announce details regarding their planes, as well as two or three agreements with other regional airlines to serve the Pemberton/Whistler area.

Their business model has also gotten a boost from declining fuel prices.

“It’s good for us, but I think it’s good for everybody,” she said. “We were going to fly regardless. Small planes are more fuel-efficient than larger planes, and we don’t fly scheduled routes, which means we won’t be flying planes with empty seats. It’s much more cost-effective that way.”

Xavier also acknowledged that their plans were set back by the Pemberton Festival, but said she supported the festival and looks forward to working with organizers if the festival returns next year.

“It wasn’t about the festival, it was just the timing of everything,” she said. “It held up our winter construction and ability to get our facilities in place, but we think (the festival) is great and we’re happy that it might be coming back. It’s just the nature of a startup business.”

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