Coastal shipping today is definitely much better off than in the past and could improve further if the state proceeded more rapidly to the full harmonization of the Greek with European Union legislation in domestic maritime transport, says Michalis Sakellis, the new president of the Coastal Shipowners’ Union (EEA) and the CEO of Blue Star Ferries, in an interview with Kathimerini. What is the image of coastal shipping today and how far is it from its potential had full liberalization been applied in practice? The current image of coastal shipping is positive and we have nothing to envy from any other European country. In the eastern Cyclades, 85 percent of traffic is served by newly constructed vessels that are among the best in the world in their category; the same is true on the routes to Crete, the Dodecanese, Chios and Lesvos, where newly constructed ships have market shares that exceed 40 percent. On Aegean routes, 60 percent of traffic uses newly built ships and this is expected to rise to 90 percent by 2009. Unfortunately in 2003 and 2004 there was reluctance to harmonize the country’s institutional framework with that of Europe, and investment programs were canceled or stopped even though their realization would have upgraded our services even more. Finally, there is the need for bolstering island interconnections. The EEA will table specific proposals for some solutions to be found. Can companies make steady business moves toward renewing the Greek coastal shipping fleet with the existing institutional framework companies? Some steps have been taken toward liberalization, which is encouraging us in new investment moves and I believe that soon we shall hear good news in this direction. The needs for new investment and upgrades of the fleet are not fleeting but long-lasting and are dictated by the requirements of the passengers. We estimate that every year more than 50 million euros are invested by coastal shipping companies for the upgrade of ships already in operation. Additionally, every year new ships start operating, either newly constructed or of a young age, while after 2010 we must plan for the substitution of ships that are still new today; and 2010 is not far off at all. Fleet renewal never ends. What are you planning to do about the non-compensative levies for third parties, which make up 30 percent of ticket fares, the compulsory 10-month-per-year operation and the 3 percent primage to fund unpopular routes? We all have to realize that abolishing these charges would mean a reduction in ticket prices. There is no reason why passengers should pay social security funds or various unions that receive money for nothing. Even port charges are non-compensative, as they are not invested in services that concern passengers. The state must stop treating coastal shipping fares as a means for cashing in. Why, for instance, is value-added tax for vehicles at 19 percent and not 9 percent? As far as the 10-month operation is concerned, we stress that the vast majority of conventional ships operate on routes for more than 10 months per year. There is, however, a limited number of vessels that can operate for only a specific period. If they are not allowed to do so, they will have to be sold. In 2005-2007 seven ships were sold. Given the seasonal character of the service, the withdrawal of those vessels and the banning of seasonal operation are a hampering factor for the development of our islands, while also cutting jobs instead of creating them. We hear protests about the late announcement of services. What is your comment on that? These complaints are mostly heard from local authority representatives. Part of the blame for their insufficient information belongs to us indeed, as we do not promote our services well enough. The services operating this year have been announced since June 2006. Booking charts for most companies are available up to October 2007. As regards 2008, the services of all companies have been announced since last January. These services cover 97 percent of transport needs and their timely announcement allows the Merchant Marine Ministry to schedule for the coverage of any transport requirements, either by proposing to change certain routes or by signing public service provision contracts. Long-term contracts have been signed for the coverage of the so-called unpopular routes. For Amorgos, Astypalaia, Donousa, Iraklia, Schinoussa and Koufonisia, the services are known up to and including 2009. On top of the above, coastal shipping operates one of the most up-to-date booking systems and any travel agency around the world can link up with all companies for the booking and issuance of tickets within a few minutes through a simple and cost-free process. One can even book confirmed tickets from home via the Internet. What is the state of port infrastructures? What problems are created and what should be done with ports so that, along with the new ships, they can contribute to reaching what we call «quality coastal shipping»? Coastal shipping’s big problem is our port infrastructures, attributed to the omissions and errors of the last 30 years. Not only has the essential work not been done, but also what has been done was wrong, as it did not foresee developments and the modern ships already operating. We must praise here the efforts made by the ministry’s General Secretariat for Ports and Port Policy for recording and solving problems. Solutions may be time-consuming, but it is a positive sign that the government is seriously involved with the issue. For the time being, we can proceed to the proper maintenance of our ports and the acceleration of works already under way or planned.