B.C. Ferries in damage control before busy long weekend


Beset with technical glitches and out of service ships, B.C. Ferries is doing damage control before the long weekend to appease frustrated passengers

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B.C. Ferries is promising to do better this August long weekend with every vessel running at full capacity and licensed crew on standby, but critics wonder why it took so long to address the technical glitches, sailing cancellations and out-of-service ships that have frustrated passengers all summer.

“We plan for every vessel to be in service running at full capacity each day of this busy long weekend,” CEO Nicholas Jimenez told a press conference in Victoria Wednesday.

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Because staff shortages can lead to cancelled sailings, Jimenez said licensed officers for key positions will be on standby this weekend to fill in for crew who call in sick.

The rare press conference was held in response to criticism that senior managers could not be reached last week when the website incorrectly showed a nine-sailing wait for service from Tsawwassen to Vancouver Island. The public was told not to trust the website but check Twitter, which left many confused and frustrated.

Trevor Halford, B.C. United transportation critic and MLA for Surrey-White Rock, said the damage control by B.C. Ferries is months too late.

“Why do things have to get to a crisis level for this for this organization — and I’ll include the (transportation) minister, Rob Fleming — to actually take action and communicate with the public?” asked Halford.

He pointed to the example last week of an elderly couple who slept in their car at the Tsawwassen terminal because the afternoon and evening sailings to Vancouver Island were full.

When the public was looking for an explanation about the nine-sailing wait — caused by people booking reservations on several sailings and then not showing up — the entire executive was missing in action and they left it the feet of the front-line workers, which is completely unacceptable,” Halford said.

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Jimenez rejected the charge the ferry service has been sitting idle, saying management has been addressing problems “incrementally over the summer.”

To address website glitches, Jimenez said, B.C. Ferries has beefed up its customer service staff, added server capacity to prevent crashes and will add a virtual waiting room to help customers who can’t access the website immediately because of high demand.

The August long weekend is the busiest of the year for the ferry service with 580,000 passengers and 210,000 vehicles expected.

The ferry corporation wants to avoid a repeat of the Canada Day long weekend that featured chaotic conditions heading into the weekend, cancelled sailings because a vessel was out of service and website glitches. Even passengers heeding advice to travel as walk-on passengers were left fuming because they couldn’t find a parking spot at some busy terminals.

“It’s fair to say we’ve had a number of frustrating events happen over the summer including the recent delays and the subsequent repairs to the Coastal Celebration which temporarily removed much-needed capacity in our system,” Jimenez said. While the Coastal Celebration was out of service, B.C. Ferries cancelled eight sailings a day between the Lower Mainland and Victoria for several weeks.

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B.C. Ferries has been plagued by staff shortages and sailing cancellations across the entire ferry network, affecting major sailings between Tsawwassen and Swartz Bay and smaller routes from the gulf islands to the mainland and Vancouver Island.

In total, 1,304 sailings have been cancelled between January and May, according to the most recent figures provided by B.C. Ferries to Postmedia (Postmedia has requested updated figures). Of those, 555 sailings were cancelled because there weren’t enough crew, 266 due to mechanical problems, 369 due to weather, and 114 for other reasons.

The union has said B.C. Ferries wages have not kept pace with other marine employers such as Seaspan.

Jimenez said management started wage negotiations with the B.C. Ferry and Marine Workers’ Union on Tuesday. The union said it won’t comment while negotiations are underway.

In the long-term, the ferry service is looking at replacing it aging fleet and modernizing five major terminals to speed up the check-in and boarding process.

Jimenez said B.C. Ferries’ $5 billion capital plan includes new vessels to replace those nearing their shelf life. Some of the C-class vessels, which service the major routes, have been in service since the 1960s, he said. However, Jimenez did not give a timeline for when the fleet will be replaced, other than to say the corporation will put forward its business case to the board of directors in the next 12 months.

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The terminal upgrades, if approved by the B.C. Ferries Commissioner who oversees the corporation, would overhaul the paper ticket system, using automated check-in technology that allows passengers which reservations to drive right through to the boarding lanes without waiting for staff.

B.C. Ferries had its busiest first quarter in the corporation’s 63 year history, Jimenez said, moving 5.8 million passengers and 2.5 million vehicles over the first three months of the year.

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