While travelers faced a weekend of yet more boat departure delays, the merchant marine minister told Sunday’s Kathimerini that the government will provide ferry operators with incentives to renew their aging fleets and liberalize ticket prices for ships sailing from Piraeus in an effort to improve services. Manolis Kefaloyiannis revealed that the ruling conservatives are poised to allow coastal shipping companies to obtain loans at preferential rates to buy new vessels since virtually half (36 ships) of the current fleet will have to be withdrawn from action by 2008. Greek law since 2001 does not allow ferries that are more than 30 years old to sail. «This way, we will be able to introduce new ships to subsidized lines and achieve an improvement in the quality of services to passengers while providing an unhampered connection between the islands and the mainland,» Kefaloyiannis said. In July, Greece secured a loan worth 3 billion euros from the European Investment Bank (EIB) to regenerate its ports, but Kefaloyiannis told Sunday’s Kathimerini that this money would help free up capital that will be made available to the ferry operators to improve their service on unprofitable lines. The loans will have to be paid back over 25 years. The first seven years will be interest-free, while the interest for the remaining years will be fixed at a low rate of 2 percent. The government subsidizes the routes to more remote or unpopular destinations and Kefaloyiannis said that the ministry would sign five-year contracts with companies in this respect rather than the current one-year deals. He said this would allow the ferry firms to make more long-term plans. Kefaloyiannis added that the government intended to free up the pricing of tickets for ferries leaving from the port of Piraeus. It has already introduced a pilot scheme for ships leaving from Rafina, Lavrion, Elefsina and Kymi and there is pressure from the coastal shipping companies to allow them to be free to charge prices as they see fit. The ministry last week fined a number of ferry firms more than 500,000 euros in total for a spate of delays and cancellations. During a visit to Piraeus yesterday, Kefaloyiannis pledged to triple the size of the fines in August, the busiest month of the year. Some 85 percent of ferry passengers travel in June, July and August.