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After bumpy start to summer, B.C. Ferries striving for smooth sailing this weekend

Key personnel are on standby to step in if staffing shortages arise, and a new “virtual waiting room” will be in place to help ensure the stability of the website and e-booking.

Travellers can expect a full complement of ferries over the B.C. Day long weekend and a strong effort to prevent the delays and technical problems that have disrupted travel in recent weeks, says B.C. Ferries’ chief executive.

Nicolas Jimenez said at a news conference Wednesday at B.C. Ferries’ Victoria headquarters that the company is determined to meet the demands of travellers on what is “without question” its busiest weekend of the year. “Knowing the importance of a long weekend like the one that approaches, our team has been busy preparing,” he said. “We plan for every vessel to be in service running at full capacity.”

B.C. Ferries expects to carry 580,000 passengers and 210,000 vehicles from Thursday to Tuesday, he said, and key personnel are on standby to step in if staffing shortages arise.

As well, he said a new “virtual waiting room” will be in place to help ensure the stability of the website and e-booking, while server capacity and storage have been added to data centres.

About 80 per cent of ­customers use reservations for ferry travel, and anyone looking to game the system by making multiple reservations will have to deal with cancellation and change fees.

Another step this weekend is bringing in public-affairs staff at major terminals to keep people as informed as possible, Jimenez said. Misting stations, family activities and live performances will be offered at some terminals.

Jimenez said the first three months of 2023 were the busiest for that period in B.C. Ferries’ 63-year history, with ferries carrying 5.8 million passengers and 2.5 million vehicles.

He acknowledged, however, a “number of frustrating events” over the summer so far, including refit delays for Coastal Celebration that resulted in sailing cancellations on the Canada Day weekend, then mechanical problems that took the vessel out of service for several days last month.

Not having Coastal Celebration meant the loss of eight sailings daily between Swartz Bay and Tsawwassen, with reservations moved to other vessels on the route, resulting in sailing delays for standby passengers.

Sailings have also been cancelled due to lack of full crews and problems with the computer network, he said.

Computer glitches included a notice on the website about a nine-sailing wait that turned out to be non-existent, and outages that affected the public’s ability to make reservations.

The problems for B.C. Ferries prompted the unusual step of bringing media together in advance of the long weekend, with Jimenez offering assurances that there has been thorough planning in all facets of the operation to ensure smooth sailing this weekend.

“Our customers are right to expect a lot from this company,” he said. “We provide a vital service connecting people and communities up and down the coast, and it’s why each of our vessels typically operates up to 18 hours a day almost every single day of the year.

“People need to have faith that the ferry system is going to work for them.” He said even with high standards of maintenance “our equipment will break down and require repairs from time to time.”

With Coastal Celebration, the seals on all four propeller blades on one of the hubs were replaced as a preventative measure, rather than just the one that had been leaking, Jimenez said.

For the long term, Jimenez said B.C. Ferries has put forward a $5-billion capital plan to deal with things like vessels that are nearing the end of their useful lives, some of which have been in use since the 1960s.

“We have challenges in our business and they cannot be fixed overnight,” he said, adding that ferry systems across the country and around the world are in similar situations. “Some of those issues have been on display this summer.”

Jimenez said one positive note is that hiring is at an all-time high, with 1,200 new employees “to beef up our crewing rosters.”

That includes international hirings, including people from Ukraine, he said.

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