Canadian Travel Series: Going Vertical With Helijet Airways
While two hundred nations debate their new post-COVID border policies, and we all look forward to multi-city, long-haul award trips in the coming months, I wanted to mix things up with a look at a few smaller, premium-travel options here in Canada that don't always get a lot of attention.
Today, we're flying with Vancouver-based Helijet Airways, a specialty airline and charter service best known for their high-speed helicopter service up and down the coast of British Columbia. I grew up out here, and over the years I've travelled between the Mainland and Vancouver Island on everything from a Boeing 767 to a 20-foot sailboat, but Helijet has always had a real advantage with its high-speed service directly into downtown Vancouver.
Please note: I have no relationship with Helijet, and they had no idea I was reviewing them.
All photos by me.
This summer, Air Canada has offered some ridiculous fares to encourage people back into the air - like Ottawa to Vancouver for $220 round-trip - so my wife and I have taken full advantage of the opportunity to reconnect with family out West, now that everyone's vaccinated and the world's opening up again.
After a few days in Vancouver, we were ready for the short hop across the Salish Sea to Nanaimo. The default option is a 2-hour sailing on BC Ferries, plus a few hours to drive out to the terminal and wait to board, etc.. While the ferry is an absolutely beautiful scenic voyage, it's also usually a crowded cabin full of screaming kids and terrible cafeteria fast food, and takes roughly 5 hours door to door.
Instead, we opted for the 18-minute flight from downtown Vancouver to downtown Nanaimo on Helijet, with last-minute, fully-flexible fares of $97 CAD per person, and walked up to the terminal about 25 minutes before departure. Aside from being a pretty solid price for that flight, it's just an amazing ride!
Helijet's Vancouver terminal is located about a block from Waterfront Station and Canada Place. If you're arriving on foot or Skytrain, you'll reach the terminal by walking through Waterfront station, but Helijet also offers a scheduled shuttle service to downtown hotels and landmarks.
While it's tucked away in the "working" part of the harbour, it's still some pretty amazing scenery on a clear day, with giant cargo ships passing through a 180-degree view of the mountains.
Helijet has also clearly spent a lot of time thinking about how to make its service as attractive as possible to business travellers, in a market that offers the slow ferry service I mentioned above, as well as scheduled harbour-to-harbour seaplane service that's also fairly quick, but can't fly in really bad weather. It's a crowded market, and Helijet strikes a good balance between a premium-feeling service, and pricing that doesn't leave it exclusively for business travellers flying on someone else's dime.
The Vancouver and Nanaimo terminals each offer a complimentary bar and snack service offering local wine, microbrews and juices, as well as the obligatory free WiFi, but they've also built beautiful patio seating areas. That was great on such a sunny day, but obviously less meaningful during Vancouver's annual six months of rain. Either way, a nice touch from a small airline, especially for such short flights.
Our aircraft arrived shortly before our scheduled departure time, but since it takes only a few minutes to turn around a 12-seat helicopter, everything moved smoothly and never felt rushed. We were asked to check all hand luggage including my wife's purse, and this made boarding and getting settled about as simple as it gets.
Helijet's scheduled passenger service runs on a fleet of Sikorsky S-76 helicopters, all of which offer 12 seats in three rows of four. It feels sort of like boarding a large Sprinter van; you sit shoulder to shoulder, with 3-point harness-style seatbelts, but I'm 6'1" and still found it quite comfortable.
Following a quick safety briefing, we lifted off right on time, and after a few seconds hovering over the helipad, we swung out over the water with just enough acceleration to be exciting! From here on, I'll let the view do the talking, with photos from both the outbound and return trip:
On the way across the strait, we passed both the 12PM and 1PM ferry sailings, one more reminder of just how much faster it is to travel this way. It's worth noting that once the post-pandemic recovery gets a little further along, Helijet will also resume flying from its hangar base at the south terminal of Vancouver International Airport, making for convenient connections if you're flying long-haul.
On high-demand days, the cheap fares we got may all have been snapped up in advance by lawyers and legislators, with the high-demand, last-minute fares topping $250 each way, but any time these $95 tickets are available we'll take them over the ferry or seaplane every time!