EDITORIAL | Industry must bite bullet on crew costs

EDITORIAL | Industry must bite bullet on crew costs

The maritime industry remains generally reluctant to learn from its counterparts in that parvenu industry, aviation.

This is unfortunate. Perhaps because aircraft are so much faster than ships, the aviation industry seems a long way ahead of the maritime industry in terms of its processes and procedures.

Aviation has always been light years ahead in areas such as safety, security and cargo handling and data processing. Door-to-door cargo delivery, for example, has been a reality in the aviation world for decades. The shipping industry is only just starting to offer it.

On safety, particularly of passengers, the aviation industry’s record is incomparably better. For some strange reason the International Maritime Organisation is unable or reluctant to “interfere” in the internal affairs of member countries. Of course, many of the bad accidents occur on internal, rather than international voyages. Strangely, IMO’s counterpart controlling the international civil aviation industry seems to have no such qualms or inabilities.

It always amazes me that ships require pilotage in so many areas where any self-respecting master should have no trouble operating safely. Aircraft commanders need no such assistance with local knowledge. Like all good ship’s masters they follow the charts and refer to the multitude of electronic aids available to them. Given that aircraft operate at thirty or more times the typical speed of ships one wonders whether we should be talking about pilotage or “piratage”. This is another area that IMO ought to be looking into.

There are other areas where the aviation model appears vastly superior to the shipping one. In particular though I am thinking of crewing arrangements. I believe we have a lot to learn from aviation here.

We are constantly made aware of recruiting difficulties and the inability to attract students or cadets to nautical schools. I am sure, from talking with hundreds of mariners over the years, that there are two main reasons for this. Obviously, they are pay and conditions. The aviation industry, on the other hand, has recruits knocking on the door.

Modern ships and larger workboats are comparable in cost and complexity with modern passenger aircraft. Ships crews’ pay and conditions, though, are generally incomparably worse than those enjoyed by their counterparts in aviation.

Perhaps this is due to the much longer traditions of the maritime industry. Whatever the reason, this fact is holding the maritime industry back. It will only get worse unless very major changes are made in the shipping world.

Aviation offers an easy-to-follow model of what to do. Better pay is glaringly obvious, less time at sea between breaks is another. Talk with an airline pilot sometime and compare his conditions and pay with his maritime counterpart. Even worse, talk with an airline steward or stewardess from almost everywhere and compare his or her pay and conditions with those of a typical AB.

There is absolutely no doubt all this will cost more. To match aviation standards, crewing costs will have to rise two or three times above current levels.

That, it seems to me, will probably not be the insurmountable problem that many in this industry believe. Judging from recent profit announcements, not many ship owners have suffered unduly from the fuel price increases of the last couple of years. They have all been passed on to their customers the shippers.

The same would apply to increased crewing costs. They will have to be passed on. In the currently booming global market that should not be too much of a problem. Shippers will just have to get used to higher freight rates. Massive proportional increases in crewing cost need not, in any case, cause more than modest increases in freight or charter rates. They are far from being the only cost of operating a ship.

If crews spend less time at sea it may also be possible to ameliorate the higher individual crew costs somewhat by operating with smaller, better-rested crews. Insurance costs may be reducible. Better-rested crews will mean fewer accidents caused by fatigue.

I am sure that a lot could be learned by emulating the practices and procedures of the aviation industry. Some leading ship owners are doing so already. The current boom provides a great opportunity to start making changes industry-wide.

You’d better move fast, though, because this boom won’t last forever. Nor, because of rising wealth and expectations in many parts of the world from which crews are drawn, will there be a supply of willing, near subsistence workers for much longer.

Neil Baird

Co-founder and former Editor-in-Chief of Baird Maritime and Work Boat World magazine, Neil has travelled the length and breadth of this planet in over 40 years in the business. He knows the global work boat industry better than anyone.