One benefit of living in Seattle is having a whole other country less than 100 miles away. And what’s usually the easiest way to get to Canada? Seattle’s seaplane airline Kenmore Air. The fourth-generation family business is the largest seaplane airline in America.
On its website, Kenmore Air highlights more than 30 places it flies to in Canada, including cities like Victoria and Vancouver but also wild fishing and yacht hot spots like Blackfish Lodge and April Point Marina.
After all these months stuck in COVID-19 constriction, can you go for a scenic floatplane ride to Victoria and a plate of poutine?
Curb your enthusiasm.
In early November, the U.S.-Canada border reopened to nonessential travel. That was the news writ large. But read the fine print and you’ll find a patchwork of pandemic approvals that don’t include smaller B.C. airports.
“We are still stuck and unable to fly,” Kenmore Air President Todd Banks says. “The Canadian government has not opened all the airports yet. In particular, we need Transport Canada to open Victoria Inner Harbour Airport.”
Kenmore Air needs Canada
This isn’t just a headache for Banks. It’s an existential threat to the company his grandfather, Bob Munro, founded 75 years ago. Pre-pandemic, half of those yellow-striped planes purring by the Space Needle were headed to Canada.
British Columbia has always been important to the airline. The first charter flights Munro flew in the 1940s went to Canada because American anglers heard there were giant fish up there. The company still flies to remote fishing resorts, but a sizable chunk of the business these days sets tourists and techies from Seattle down at docks in the heart of downtown Victoria and Vancouver.
“Normally we’d be looking at running 35 to 45 flights a day in and out of Canada,” Banks says. “Now there are no flights. That’s been a pretty big adjustment.”
The big question is why. Why have Canadian officials opened some airports and not others? Kenmore Air has been asking this question for months and hasn’t gotten a clear answer.
On Nov. 30, Transport Canada added eight airports that can accept international arrivals, bringing the total number to 18. One of the newly added airports is Victoria International but that’s for planes with wheels, not floats.
John Gowey, the director of flight operations for Kenmore Air, says that without more information from Canada on the process and timing of reopening, they are flying blind.
“The question has been, when are there going to be more airports opened? All the ones that we use?” Gowey says. “What would be nice is some kind of a timeline from Canadian officials. We are just wondering what the future holds.”
Earlier in December, Kenmore Air hoped to get some guidance. The company and its Canadian counterpart, Harbour Air, had a long-awaited meeting with Transport Canada, the equivalent of America’s FAA. The result was, as Banks put it, “a whole lot of nothing.”
“What they are telling us is that due to uncertainty around the omicron variant, they are not yet ready to open up Vancouver Harbor or Victoria Harbor to scheduled international seaplane service,” Gowey says.
An argument has been made that 10-seater seaplane flights would pose less COVID infection risk since passengers avoid crowded airport terminals. The agencies in charge appear to not see it that way.
“The Agency will not, under any circumstances, compromise the health and safety of Canadians in order to expedite border processing,” Canada Border Services Agency media spokesperson Louis-Carl Brissette Lesage said by email when asked when seaplane airports might reopen.
Banks says he realizes that the powers that be are in a tough spot: “We need to be respectful of our health officials on both sides of the border and be good business partners.”
Vancouver flights can’t take off
But that doesn’t make it easy. At the airline’s Lake Washington terminal in Kenmore, more than a dozen floatplanes sit parked on dry land. This sight is disheartening for the Banks/Munro family because some of those planes would be splashing down in Vancouver’s Coal Harbour if the pandemic hadn’t grounded them. After a year of negotiation, direct seaplane flights between Seattle and Vancouver had finally become reality.
The route is a partnership between Kenmore Air and Canada’s Harbour Air and it’s one of the first links in the Cascadia Innovation Corridor which aims to connect tech businesses across the border. Microsoft, which employs more than 1,900 people in Vancouver, and both airlines worked hard to convince the Canadian Border Services Agency to open a customs facility in Coal Harbor.
Then, just as scheduled service was going to begin, COVID shut it down.
“Oh, geez!” says an exasperated Randy Wright, president of Harbour Air. “This has been going on for quite a long time. We have lost tens of thousands of dollars.” Wright points to a new missed opportunity. “With the Kraken and the rivalry with the Canucks there is a lot of business to be had there.”
Kenmore Air and Seattle’s new hockey team created a plane covered in Kraken livery that they can’t wait to fly to Canada to stoke that rivalry.
“This is a big disappointment,” Banks says. “The phones are ringing off the hook with customers, including people who want to fly to Canada for the holidays to see family members.”
Speaking of family members, Kenmore Air has a motto: Treat employees like family. It’s been a heartbreak for Banks to lay off employees — some of whom worked for decades with his grandfather and uncle. March 2020 was especially grim.
“We went from around 100 employees to 18 employees in less than two weeks,” Banks says.
From that low point, Kenmore Air brought employees back in its other venture: rebuilding vintage Otter and Beaver floatplanes, and supplying seaplane parts around the world.
“We have our own avionics department, our own upholstery department,” Banks says. “All those little niches create diversity.”
Once people started flying again this summer, Kenmore Air created a $75 scenic Seattle flight to celebrate the company’s 75th anniversary.
This winter, the airline added another COVID pivot — it got a land-based PC-12 turbo prop, a fast plane that customers can charter to places like California or Montana.
Both offerings are proving to be popular, but Banks admits that nothing can make up for the loss of all those flights to Canada. Today, Kenmore Air employs just 60% of the people it had on the payroll in the years before COVID.
“The main thing is this, we are not setting the world on fire. But we have adjusted to the temporary new normal,” Banks says. “By next spring, I hope we’ll be flying to Canada again.”