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Do Not Use · 13th August 2008
John Sprungman
In June, August and November last year, workers for a BC Ferries' contractor handed out 747 “customer satisfaction” questionnaires on the Quadra ferry which travelers were asked to fill out and mail in. They got 168 of them back, the lowest percentage of return on eight routes which were surveyed.

Overall, employees of the Mustel Group, a Vancouver research company, gave forms to 13,730 ferry customers on four major and four minor routes, asking them to rate various aspects of their ferry experience from 1 (very dissatisfied) to 5 (very satisfied). They've been doing this every year since 2003.

The emphasis, as usual, was on the larger routes between Vancouver and Nanaimo, Duke Point, Victoria and the Sunshine Coast. They also surveyed people on the Salt Spring ferry to Swartz Bay, travelers to the Southern Gulf Islands and users of the Gabriola Island ferry. Returned forms totaled 5,166 from routes which transported 17.3 million people between April 1, 2007 and March 31, 2008.

BCF says 895,015 passengers took the Quadra ferry in those 12 months so 168 returns constitutes about 2/100ths of one per cent of the year's travelers, not what one would generally consider a significant sampling of opinion. But there are some ratings I think most of us would agree with.

Courtesy of the Campbell River ticket booth staff got a 4.5, the clarity of their directions 4.4 and the efficiency of transactions 4.3. The professionalism of both terminal staff and onboard crew got 4.2, as high as any route surveyed.

On the other end of the satisfaction spectrum, onboard ease of access for people with disabilities was rated 2.8 and “value for money of fares” got the lowest rating of any item-2.5.

The overall conclusion of the study: “Satisfaction levels have softened” on six of the eight routes, and “levels are relatively stable on the remaining routes.” That would be two routes. Mustel reported that customer satisfaction has slipped from 4.2 in 2006 to 4.1 in 2007.

The language in the report is as soft as the sampling, but there are a lot of colourful graphs so the whole thing takes up 44 of the 80 pages in BCF's annual report to the Ferry Commissioner which was released last week. The survey asked customers to rate 69 aspects of their ferry experience-including the usefulness of TV info screens to foot passengers at major terminals, the variety and selection of merchandise in the gift shops and terminal decor. Most Quadra recipients of the forms apparently suffered terminal ennui trying to wade through irrelevant categories.

“After making gains in many areas in 2006, passenger satisfaction levels have subsided or reached a plateau in 2007,” the report said. “The key reasons appear to be related to late departures, sailing frequency and perceived value for money.” Perceived?

In an strangely constructed sentence, the report says, “Satisfaction levels continue to be low with perceived value for money of the fares, with ratings steadily declining and now in 2007 at their lowest level yet (40% satisfied).”

Are these conclusions BCF's management itself couldn't have come to? “You can observe a lot just by looking,” baseball's Yogi Berra has been repeatedly quoted as saying. With a 4% fare hike April 1 and fuel surcharges from ranging from 9% to more than 20% on many routes on August 1, it's a fair bet that next year's surveyed ferry users will perceive an even lower level of fare value.

Nowhere in the 80 pages does it say what the survey costs. Nor does it explain that the provincial government's Coastal Ferry Services Contract has required this annual survey since 2003 and mandated that it be done by a “professional consulting organization” from the private sector.
Instead, the report to the Commissioner says, “This study is part of a regular program of ongoing research conducted each year by BC Ferries.”In fact, it's another kind of public-private partnership, that special arrangement in which public money can be easily moved into private hands, in this case to produce mostly “useless and pointless knowledge,” to quote from an old Dylan song.

But it is nice to know that 168 Quadra ferry customers appreciated the people who work on the ship and in the Campbell River and Quathiaski Cove terminals. I know I do.

Thanks to You Too!
I also want to thank the many people on Quadra and Cortes who have thanked me for writing these reports. It is satisfying to hear that the time and effort one puts into a volunteer community role is appreciated, even if the results of Ferry Advisory Committee efforts often seem slight.

Coming into the last few months of three years as FAC chair, I think our most substantial accomplishment was getting BCF to rethink and redesign the Experience Card system that replaced the ticket books. Their original concept, based on the Coast Card for the big ferries, was to sell us a card good for 10 trips which had to be taken within three months.

I give BCF's President and CEO David Hahn a lot of credit for listening to the objections and seeing to it that the end product as nearly replicated the paper ticket system as was electronically possible. In addition, BCF substantially reduced the amount of money we have to put up front to get the prepaid fares and made every card usable on all the routes which used to have paper tickets-including, finally, Heriot Bay to Whaletown.

On Another Level
Two years ago, Hahn invited the chairs of all 12 FACs on the coast to BCF's annual general meeting in Victoria and met with us, along with other senior management people, to encourage us to work together as well as represent the communities served by our individual routes.

Since then the FAC Chairs have met eight times in Victoria, Nanaimo and Powell River with BCF execs, with Ferry Commissioner Martin Crilly and with Ministry of Transportation officials, including a one-hour session at the Parliament Buildings with Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon in March 2007.

In between these meetings, we have had extensive email exchanges on many issues with each other and with BCF, the Commissioner and MoT. These efforts have given us considerable knowledge of how BC Ferry Services Inc. is structured and financed, how it is regulated by the Commissioner, and how it is still ultimately within the power of the government to decide what BC Ferries does and how much taxpayer support it gets.

In addition, Hahn asked Executive V-P and Chief Financial Officer Rob Clarke to attend the last two rounds of local FAC meetings. His participation has given us a means of contacting the top level of management with concerns and for information that has proven to be valuable to all the committees.

The FAC Chairs responded strongly in the media to the latest fuel surcharges, warning that the government's user pay policy is not sustainable and arguing that more provincial support is necessary to prevent irreparable harm to the communities BCF serves. So far the Minister has only responded with the idea that service cuts and some type of resident discount might be a solution.

Representatives of all 12 FACs will be at BCF's annual general meeting Aug. 27 in Tsawwassen for meetings with Hahn and Co., with the Ferry Commissioners and with each other in preparation for further sessions with the government.