GALVESTON, Texas — Ship pilots have agreed to drop a hotly contested requirement that cruise line operators pay two pilots to help guide ships into and out of the island’s harbor, provided the Port of Galveston widens areas in the channel where passenger vessels turn.
The requirement of two pilots to turn a cruise ship around in the channel has been the source of tension for months between operators of passenger liners and the 15-member Galveston-Texas City Pilots Association.
Industry stakeholders who pay pilot fees have argued that having two pilots was unnecessary and expensive. One pilot was sufficient, they argued. The association argued that two pilots were necessary for the safety of thousands of passengers on cruise ships.
The agreement, brought about by weeks of negotiations, was presented to the five-member Board of Pilot Commissioners on May 3 and is expected to go into effect May 20.
But the pilots association will continue to require two pilots until dredging is completed and the port has created clearly marked and maintained turning areas in the harbor, Capt. Mark W. Saunders, vice president of the pilots association said.
Dredging to deepen the channel in some places to 45 feet is under way by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The port’s governing board last month, however, authorized an emergency dredging contract to create the turning areas. That work will be done in conjunction with routine dredging and cleanup at berths and slips silted by Hurricane Ike.
To meet pilot requests, crews will widen turning areas in the channel to 1,400 feet. The turning areas are about 1,100 wide feet now. The widening should be complete by Aug. 31, port officials said.
Cruise ships, some of which are more than 900 feet long, enter and leave the port in same direction, requiring them to be turned completely around.
With the two-pilot resolution, Carnival Cruise Lines has dropped its objection to miscellaneous fee increases. While there is no across-the-board rate hike, pilots have increased the safety and education fee imposed on each vessel to $41 a ship from $21.
The pilots are not asking for an across-the-board rate increase but will raise prices on some services for which they incur extra costs, such as detention fees assessed for late ships.
Ship pilots each make about $350,000 a year.
But Royal Caribbean International and the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association did not drop their opposition to the new tariffs, saying they wanted the two-pilot agreement dropped immediately.
Royal Caribbean’s objection is moot because its Voyager of the Seas sails from November to April from Galveston, long after pilots will have stopped charging for the second pilot.
Last year, the average round-trip pilot cost to steer the Voyager into harbor was $12,400. That paid one pilot at the full rate and the second at half the rate.
Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean and the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association in September filed a lawsuit against the Board of Pilot Commissioners, which sets ship pilot rates. A month later, the port, which counts the cruise ships as tenants, agreed to join the lawsuit in support of its customers.
The lawsuit sought to enforce an earlier agreement between industry and the pilots that would have granted the pilots a 5 percent rate increase. But when the commission met to approve the tariff, the rates presented a 9 percent increase, angering industry. The pilots abruptly withdrew their request, citing potential legal challenges by industry.
The port is not objecting to the new tariffs but would not formerly drop its opposition until Royal Caribbean and the cruise association had, Port Director Steve Cernak said.
With the latest agreement, the lawsuit is expected to be resolved.
"I’m just glad that this impasse was able to be resolved," Cernak said.
The pilot association said the agreement represents the start of better relations with its customers.
"We’ve established a good working relationship directly with our customers. We’ve come to an understanding over these issues," Saunders said. "It’s a whole different ballgame now."
The association will keep a requirement that two of its members guide oil tankers. Industry has not sought to remove that requirement.