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Learning lessons from foreign ferry companies

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The Philippine shipping industry has great potential to contribute to the country’s economy, but has many areas for improvement. Fortunately, these can be addressed by learning and adopting lessons from previous experiences, as well as by benchmarking with the best practices of foreign ferry firms.

Inter-island shipping is thriving in the Philippines, an archipelagic nation. Because of this, passengers and their cargo need to be transported efficiently and safely. In order to have regular and stable access to the country’s different islands, a fast, sufficient and reliable maritime transport system is needed.

According to the Maritime Industry Authority’s (Marina) domestic fleet inventory, there are 9,056 registered passenger vessels as of December 2016. They have a combined gross register tonnage (GRT) of 498,961—average GRT is 55—and an average age of 8.91 years. This figure made up 63 percent of the total 14,336 merchant fleets, a 65-percent increase from the more than 9,500 recorded in 2013.

In the first quarter of 2014, Marina reported more than 12 million domestic-shipping passengers, which is 26 percent more than the 9 million air travelers in domestic carriers. The figures suggest that more people prefer traveling by sea than by air.


One of them is Eunice Robles, a woman in her 20s who works in Makati City. Every last week of December, she goes home to Oriental Mindoro province to welcome the New Year with her family. For her bi-annual trips, Eunice travels on domestic ships. She takes a three-hour bus ride from Cubao in Quezon City to the Batangas City port, and then a passenger/cargo vessel for another three hours to her hometown of Abra de Ilog.

Gantry cranes at an unidentified German container port. PHOTO BY BERNSWAELZ VIA PIXABAY

During her travels, Eunice observed that during peak season, there are not enough seats to accommodate her and a large number of co-passengers who have to stand for the duration of the trip, even when there are fewer trucks on board. Also, when passengers are fewer, more cargo trucks are loaded onboard.

Eunice also shared her wish for cleaner and well-maintained restrooms and for ships to be upgraded and modernized. They should also be fitted with more comfortable seats, instead of monobloc chairs. While she wants more comfort during her trips, she is delighted and appreciates the fact that there are regular ships en route to her hometown.

According to her, sea travel is cheaper than air travel and is quite enjoyable, especially during fine weather. She said communication systems among the shipping crew, port authorities and other relevant institutions serve to enhance the efficiency of the journey.

Safe and secure
Several factors compromise the safety of sea travel. Extreme weather conditions are one of them, and are often the major cause of accidents at sea. To avoid these, port authorities suspend issuing travel clearances during bad weather, based on official advisories from relevant agencies and institutions.

Human error also causes accidents. This is blamed on incompetent or negligent crew members and other human factors. The massive recruitment of trained seafarers for overseas trade has resulted in the lack of qualified and skilled seafarers in our local shipping industry.

Technical malfunction is caused by the condition of the ships and their engines. According to Marina records, most of the vessels used in roll-on/roll-off terminal systems are secondhand cargo ships converted into passenger/cargo ships. The government allows the importation of used ships to augment the fleet, as orders for new ships in the domestic shipping industry are scarce.

The increasing demand for domestic shipping is looked upon as the maritime sector’s contribution to increased economic growth. This supports the needs of various subsectors and industries that bank on the timely shipment of their goods from one market to another. However, this economic opportunity has to be balanced with the strict enforcement of applicable maritime laws and rules.

Standards and best practices
As both an enabler and regulatory body, Marina strives to perform its functions efficiently. Recognizing that modernization must be part of the reforms to improve domestic shipping lines, the authority is working on solutions, including providing subsidies to shipping companies, so that they are encouraged to increase their fleet with new, locally built or assembled vessels.

Marina also prioritizes conducting relevant studies on maritime accidents for proper documentation and the appropriate use of relevant information to be collated and gathered. It is expected that these would help in crafting necessary policies, as well as corrective and preventive measures, to eliminate unfortunate incidents at sea.

Michael Armamento is a veteran seafarer who became chief engineer at 27. He has commendable qualifications, and his knowledge and skills include crewing; managing different types of vessels; and providing services on the technical, operational and managerial aspects in various maritime subsectors. He has 18 years of experience onboard various seacraft, including tankers, containers, passenger and cargo vessels to name a few.

He believes that the existence of six different local classification societies compromises safety, as they try to outdo, instead of complement, each other. Thus, they have the purposes and intent to assist Marina in ensuring that there are dedicated organizations pushing for the development and administration of technical standards of ships.

These include the design, construction and periodic survey of ships and other marine structures, such as mobile offshore units. They also render advisory services related to the aforementioned and the revision of rules referred to by the authority. However, these are unfortunately set aside by their competitive stance.

The Philippines can benchmark with other countries, among them South Korea and China, which maintain a single class that works on ensuring the safety and seaworthiness of all vessels. Thus, it is maintained that maritime safety is the foremost priority and that no vested interests from regulating parties can be observed. It is hoped that, in the next few years, a sole and unified classification will be achieved with the help of bills sponsored by Angkla Party-list, local government units and other relevant organizations.

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