Shipowners rock the boat

Ferry companies fired a shot across the government’s bow yesterday as they agreed to free up ticket prices immediately and to go on strike in two weeks’ time to protest against what they regard as the slow pace at which their market is being liberalized. The decision to keep all ferries docked on May 16 was made during a meeting of the Coastal Shipowners’ Union, or EEA. The move will leave a number of travelers stranded and several islands cut off from their normal source of supplies. The head of the EEA, Stelios Sarris, told a press conference that the companies had decided to take this action because the Merchant Marine Ministry was «continuing to make fun» of them and not implementing European Union legislation. The ferry companies want complete liberalization of their market so they can set ticket prices as they see fit. The rising cost of oil appears to have hampered their ability to charge prices based on the firm’s outgoings. So far, fares have only been partly liberalized. Merchant Marine Minister Manolis Kefaloyiannis has stressed that there will be no liberalization for routes that are subsidized by the state and which serve remote islands. He has also instructed companies that want to operate these subsidized routes over the next six years to modernize their fleets with newer vessels during that period. The coastal shipowners argue that without the freedom to price tickets as they see fit heading into the summer season, they will not be able to develop their business, attract investors and build new ships. As a result, the EEA decided yesterday that its members should go ahead and free up their market on their own. This move is likely to have an immediate impact on economy-class ticket prices and lead to a showdown with the government. Shipowners also want the implementation of an international agreement allowing some ships to operate beyond the current limit of 35 years. They also do not want to have to apply every year for permission to conduct their routes.