OPINION | Buoyant ferry industry sets course for further progress

Pireaus. Photo: Flickr/Robert Cutts

Happily for the ferry industry, Baird Maritime’s Passenger Vessel Week coincides with a notably positive period in our always-challenging sector of shipping. I feel we have never been in better shape – and that goes for developing as well as developed nations, albeit for somewhat different reasons.

In the developed world, most operators are seeing year-on-year traffic growth, with many reporting record passenger and vehicle carryings. This is happening because, in an age of continual shifts in customer and regulatory expectations, ferry companies are not merely reacting to potentially damaging influences – they are future-proofing their viability with a proactive, long-term mindset that redefines challenges as opportunities. Among typical examples, competition from budget airlines and fixed links has been countered by focus on the shipboard experience and major extension of excursion, mini-cruise and holiday offerings.

Coinciding with rising consumer demand, compelling financial and regulatory requirements for super-efficient vessel performance has spurred aggressive fleet expansion programmes. Shipbuilding seems to have stalled in certain other shipping segments, but the order book for ferries is truly impressive among various size operators in Asia, Australia, Europe and North America.

Alternative fuel sources are a dominant feature of the designs, reflecting an innovative approach to meeting compulsory cuts in air emissions. The ferry sector leads the field in the actual or planned uptake of battery, hybrid and hydrogen power and the installation of “cold ironing” equipment that enables berthed vessels to use shoreside electricity.

As for developing nations, my upbeat “state of the industry” assessment stems from increasingly concerted action to enhance safety on their domestic ferry operations. There are still too many accidents, but recent events encourage me to be cautiously optimistic about future improvements. A ground-breaking turning point came at the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) in June, when the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) finally agreed to step up their advisory input by establishing a proper work plan that will include the development of model regulations. The formal proposal from China reflected many years of Interferry advocacy and cooperation on the issue at the IMO, where we have consultative status.

Pushing safety in the developing world

Shortly before the MSC decision, a team from Interferry’s purpose-formed FerrySafe project made two fact-finding visits to the Philippines to research how the nation’s safety record has been transformed over the past decade from worst in the world to being on par with the global average. The week-long visits – to Manila in March and ferry capital Cebu in May – involved 66 stakeholder interviews, seven ferry crossings, shipyard visits and meetings with the maritime, port and coast guard authorities.

Although no “silver bullet” safety solution came to light, several factors repeatedly emerged as paramount – government will, reasonably tight regulations, a no-sail policy in bad weather, local enforcement and the importance of insurance and insurance surveys. The team is now developing a “lessons learned” document to help the IMO and other developing nations.

Throughout the world, Interferry’s networking and lobbying mission as the ferry industry’s only global voice is driven by our “Stronger Together” strategy. Joining forces gives us far greater impact in reminding politicians, regulators and consumers of our value to society. Ferries carry more than two billion passengers a year – comparable to airlines – as well as 32 million freight units, but this crucial role has often seemed unappreciated outside the industry and overlooked by maritime regulators.

Environmental impacts at the forefront

In the past, various safety and environmental proposals have sometimes unintentionally penalised the unique dictates of ferry design and operation. That is no longer the norm thanks to evermore successful Interferry interventions that support the general objectives but call for sector-specific amendments.

When draft guidelines on Ro-Pax fire safety were approved at the June MSC meeting, we argued for more discussion to prevent unproven construction recommendations. In May the IMO’s Marine Environmental Protection Committee (MEPC) set out potential short-term greenhouse gas (GHG) measures covering stricter Energy Efficiency Design Index, shaft power and speed requirements.

Our specially formed GHG working group will present ferry-appropriate proposals at the GHG intersessional meeting in November. The MEPC also set a 2021 deadline to harmonise rules for discharge water from exhaust gas scrubbers – a response to the trend for states to impose unproven unilateral restrictions. Interferry will maintain its position that any new requirements should be based on scientific facts, and that any future changes should not penalise currently compliant installations.

Building on these strong foundations, it is now time to take Interferry’s reach and influence to the next level under our proposed 2020-2022 strategic plan, which extends our vision of making a difference both within and beyond the industry. Our current membership of more than 250 ferry operators and suppliers in some 40 countries is largely based in North America, Europe and Australia.

Under the strategy’s far-reaching core objectives, we will look to grow membership in developing nations to boost our quest for safety improvements. We will also increase resources to ensure regulatory success; and develop communications activity underlining the ferry industry’s size and economic importance. The draft plan is due for final approval at our October board meeting and will be presented immediately afterwards at our 44th annual conference in London.

In line with the strategy’s aims, the conference theme is dedicated to transformational innovation, with a focus on step-change rather than incremental improvements that have the potential to revolutionise every aspect of our industry.

I cannot close without mentioning that we have chosen Hobart, Tasmania, as the venue for our 45th annual conference in October 2020. Hosted by association member TT-Line Spirit of Tasmania, this will be the third time that the industry-leading event has been staged in Australia, following Sydney in 1995 and the Gold Coast in 2002.

See all the other content from this month’s Passenger Vessel Week right here, including reviews, features, opinions and news.

Mike Corrigan

Mike Corrigan is CEO of Interferry, the trade association that represents the worldwide ferry industry. Mike brings to his position of CEO of Interferry extensive executive experience in the ferry industry, most recently as the CEO of BC Ferries, one of the world’s largest ferry operators.