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From logistical puzzle to conundrum — the V.Ships view of the crew crisis

The head of V.Ships crew management has applauded those shipowners who have cover the hugely inflated expense of repatriating seafarers. Crew managers are frustrated by chaotic procedures

V.Ships’ Allan Falkenberg remains worried that crew-sourcing countries will continue to suffer from the effects relating to the coronavirus situation

SHIPOWNERS who put their hand in their pocket to cover the inflated cost of repatriating seafarers have been applauded by the head of V.Ships crew management.

“We need to recognise that some shipowners are paying some pretty big bills to make this happen,” Allan Falkenberg told Lloyd’s List.

Last week, V.Ships took advantage of Gibraltar opening for crew changes.

“We had to get 11 Filipinos to Gibraltar to relieve crew on board our vessel,” the chief executive says. “They had to fly via London. The cost of chartering a flight from London to Gibraltar for 11 seafarers was $40,000. The ship owner paid for that trip — a year’s travel budget on that one flight.

“For the seafarers wanting to go home, they have to wait in a Gibraltar hotel for nine days for a connecting flight to Manila via London. The ship owner had to cover that cost as well.”

When they arrive at Manila airport, the seafarers will be tested, with further quarantine for any found to be positive.

Between March 22 and July 13, V.Ships has achieved 15,246 crew movements — about 1,400 per week. Although Filipinos make up 27% of V.Ships’ 44,000 seafarers, only 2,100 Filipinos have successfully been repatriated.

“Two nationalities have been extremely difficult to repatriate: Filipinos and Indians,” Mr Falkenberg said. “India, because the government still won’t allow any commercial flights into or out of the country, which means you can still only use charter flights. That makes repatriation very hard, unless you can persuade the shipowner to divert to an Indian port for crew change.

“In the Philippines it is still the logistics of so few aircraft allowed to land. Seafarers need to be coronavirus tested in Manila before they go on to their province. There’s still a limit on how many aircraft can carry passengers into the Philippines.”

He stressed the challenges faced by crew management staff.

“Even though we have teams still in many locations, we work across all time zones with ships sitting on the other side of the planet. It takes five times longer to arrange a crew change than under normal conditions.”

Getting seafarers home has become a logistical nightmare, he said. Customs authorities are changing the immigration rules day by day. Some will offer visas on arrival, others won’t; some demand coronavirus testing 48 hours before arrival at the airport; most need to know exactly which personnel are involved several days in advance.

Meanwhile, airlines must keep on checking countries’ requirements, which can change overnight.

“We have had crew arriving at the airport after everything has been arranged only to be turned away because the airline didn’t know the rules,” said Mr Falkenberg.

His office staff have had to apologise to the captain, explaining that even though his repatriation is three months overdue, “this has happened and that has happened — and you will not be going home, yet.”

The work has become frustrating. “My team has been working tirelessly for the last two weeks and then it falls apart because someone didn’t read the rules right,” he explained.

While it has been tough for seafarers stuck on their ships, with mental health becoming a concern, it has probably been even tougher for those seafarers stuck at home, he explained.

They are only paid when they work. Many seafarers went home for Christmas and were available again in March, but the pandemic ended travel to their ships. They have spent seven months without income, which often pays for medical and education expenses plus their home mortgage.

Last week’s crew crisis summit, led by the UK government, was a positive move. Some governments have been doing what they can — Mr Falkenberg names Germany, the UK, and Singapore as seeking solutions, although more could be done to coordinate initiatives.

The role of the larger ship manager such as V.Ships has been underpinned in this crisis.

“We represent many ship owners with two, three, or four vessels,” he said. “It’s difficult for them to get their voice heard. V.Ships has 1,000 ships under full management or crew management; we represent 44,000 seafarers from many countries who need to go home. The ship manager can consolidate the voice of the seafarer and ship owner.”

Looking forward, Mr Falkenberg admits he is concerned about the continuing impact of coronavirus on crew sourcing countries.

“We might see an easing in terms of countries accepting visas on arrival, but we are likely to see more coronavirus cases in the Philippines. Then we’ll be stuck with a conundrum: Europe wants to allow crew changes because it’s on the political agenda. But the Philippines will question whether they want thousands of seafarers going through their airports. I’m worried,” he concludes.

 

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