Ship managers resort to charter flights for moving crew as deadline looms

P Manoj Mumbai | Updated on May 26, 2020

File photo

Indian ship management and crewing companies are resorting to charter flights to move seafarers to and from ports overseas. This move is likely to bring some business to troubled private airlines, such as SpiceJet, that were hit by a two-month long restrictions on air travel to combat coronavirus.

With international flights yet to re-start operations to India, ship owners, managers and crewing companies have come under pressure to work out alternatives for resuming crew change – halted globally since February due to the pandemic – as a June 15 deadline set by the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) and the International Maritime Employers’ Council (IMEC) looms.

ITF and IMEC have given governments time until June 15 to repatriate crew working beyond their stipulated contract time, by following the guidelines issued by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO).

On May 30, two SpiceJet charter flights – one from Mumbai to Colombo run by V R Maritime and the other from Chennai to Colombo run by SeaTeam Management (India) Pvt Ltd – will carry Indian seafarers to join ships in South Korea and Japan, two countries that have allowed crew change despite the pandemic-induced restrictions. The two charter flights have received government approvals.

SeaTeam is the Indian ship management unit of Frontline Ltd, the world’s largest oil tanker shipping company, based in Hamilton, Bermuda and controlled by shipping tycoon John Fredriksen.

Seafarers going by the charter flight run by SeaTeam Management are headed for South Korea to board ships.

Apart from its own crew, SeaTeam will also fly seafarers from a few other companies to Colombo, from where they will travel to South Korea to join yard delivery vessels.

Currently, owners and managers are mostly moving seafarers to overseas ports for yard deliveries and not for crew change. This is being done to avoid losing vessels or jobs to other nationalities.

Crew change means a seafarer going on board a ship while another seafarer disembarks and return to his home country.

In the case of yard delivery, the ship is in the ship building yard and it has to be taken over by the owner. For this, seafarers are sent to the yard and they do the sea-trials and take over the ship.

“We cannot send crew to China, otherwise we would have taken over more ships for manning. Seafarers don’t have Visas to go to China because the embassy is shut,” said Captain Sanjay Prashar, managing director at V R Maritime, a ship management company.

More such charter flights are in the offing.

Ferrying seafarers on special charterer flights will give some respite to the beleaguered airlines some of whom resumed partial operations on Monday with each such charter flight costing as much as Rs50 lakhs to the entity chartering the plane on a Mumbai to Colombo and back run.

But, there are obstacles in making this a sustainable plan.

“You need to have flight schedules by which seafarers can reach a place, do Covid tests, stay in a quarantined atmosphere and have the connecting flight to wherever he wants to go. Actually, this is a very bad plan but in desperation this is the only plan,” said Prashar.

On the return leg, the flight has to come back empty. “If you want to fill the return flight with seafarers, then you have to give the crew manifest to the Directorate General of Shipping and the Ministry of External Affairs. If they approve, then only you are allowed to bring back seafarers. So, the return flight approval comes from five authorities, but for the onward flight, it requires the approval of one authority,” said Prashar.

“If the flight does not take off from India, we lose hundred per cent of the money,” he added.

“Practically, the plan is at the mercy of the government. It does not matter with which airline you have tied-up with for transporting seafarers. But, it matters who gets the approval from the government,” Prashar added.

Published on May 26, 2020

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