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Reaching an even keel

Many changes and improvements are in the offing for Gozo Channel Company. Company Chairman John E. Sullivan takes some time to explain to Mario Schembri Wismayer his vision for the future of the company

I had never been to the headquarters of Gozo Channel Company at Sa Maison before. The small building, with its narrow corridors and tiny cubicles makes you feel that you are aboard a small boat, which is very apt, all things considered. Mr Sullivan receives me in his office, which, by the looks of it also doubles as a boardroom.

What background and experience do you bring to your present position? How long have you been in this position, I ask "I have always been involved in commercial activity. Previously I was involved in towage and lighterage; it was mostly work involved with harbour operations. This died a natural death with the nationalisation of Tug Malta. I was chairman of Tug Malta for ten years. I was appointed chairman of Gozo Channel since 1999."

Before the interview, I had taken the liberty of having a look at Gozo Channel’s Website. One thing that stands out is the concern for safety and the potential of an environmental problem. "Yes, we do give a lot of importance to safety of the crew and of the passengers. We have developed a safety management system, which also addresses environmental concerns. Today operators of ships have to register with several international bodies and they have to abide by their rules."

I ask Mr Sullivan if his company takes any special precautions when it comes to handling hazardous cargo. "Hazardous cargo is carried the world over. Petrol, gas and diesel are classified as hazardous material because they have a flash point of 60/61 or less. When this cargo is being carried, only about twenty-five passengers are allowed on board. The Gaudos is specially designed to carry hazardous materials. Among other things, she has special doors and wiring."

I raise the point that Gozo Channel Company has a certain social concern. In fact it engages in a quite a lot of cultural activities, such as the restoration of the last Dghajsa tal-Latini. "Because of our necessary monopoly, we do have certain social obligations. Yet we have to be commercial and cover our costs. This does not only translate into lower ticket prices for the Gozitans; cargo services from Sa Maison are also run at a loss. The night service is not always viable. Since, however, we are the only operators (and because of the size of the harbours it’s likely to remain like that) Gozo depends entirely on us for all its needs and supplies. We used to transfer people with renal problems to St Luke’s, with all the hassle and trouble that that implies. So we decided to donate a renal unit to the Gozo hospital so that people who need this treatment can receive it there. The Xlendi was scuttled to create a marine site for divers – this will help the Gozita touism sector. The Dghajsa tal-Latini was built by Caruana in 1935. We bought if from a third party. Now it is being restored by Caruana’s sons. When restoration will be completed, it will be displayed on land, probably at Mgarr." What about the moral of the crews? "We give morale a lot of importance as it has a big part to play in our operation. This is because it influences our image in the eyes of our client. Because of the nature of what we do our safety record is vital.

“No company can survive unless it is safe. Over the last 15 – 20 years passengers ferries had to adopt very stringent safety measures. The crews regularly carry out safety drills."

I ask Mr Sullivan how many pilots the company employs. "They are called masters, rather than pilots. We have four vessels and we employ 14 masters of varying degrees of certification. Four of them are master mariners."

I ask if women officers are employed. "We have two female chief officers. One of them is employed full time, the other one is a part-timer." What about feedback from the public? "We have questionnaires on board and on land. We try and acknowledge all input, when possible. We do take actions on sensible suggestions. For example one suggestion we followed recently was to put a ‘ramp going down’ notice on the upstairs ramp as the one on the deck below could not be seen from the higher rank."

The Malita recently suffered a hard disk failure and consequently all operations abroad were paralysed. Was this going to be a recurrent problem with the new ferries? "I don’t believe so. This is the first time that it happened. These are state of the art vessels. The computer shows any faults when they occur. When the hard disk failed the master and the crew did not realise straight away. The system of diagnosis takes some time. Besides that, it is normal to have teething problems with new vessels."

I ask if on the whole the company is happy with the new vessels. "We are very satisfied – they proved to be a success. As always there is room for improvement; we could increase our capacity by 50 per cent. Having said that, our ferries provide a spacious and pleasant environment in which to make the short trip between the islands."

The possibility of resuming the trips to Sicily is still in the air. What is the likelihood of this happening? "The ships can easily handle the trip to Sicily and they have the certification to do so. There are two main problems when it comes to this.

First of all the ferries are built with power, rather than speed in mind. That is they can carry a lot of weight, but they won’t move very fast. This means that they would take quite long to get to Sicily and back. This brings in the other problem; the furniture and the way they are designed is for a short trip. They would prove to be uncomfortable to live in for such a journey. Another consideration is that because of the time it would take, it would mean having a ferry out of the Malta-Gozo route for too long."

I ask Mr Sullivan about the completion of the Cirkewwa terminal; is it progressing according to schedule? "Strictly speaking that is not the responsibility of the Gozo Channel. The terminals belong to the Malta Maritime Authority. Berth 2 is ready. Unfortunately until construction is complete, there will be disruptions and people have to be a little flexible. The terminal buildings will be very user friendly and will enable people to board the ferries straight onto the upstairs decks. The completion of the Cirkewwa terminal and subsequent building of some structures at Mgarr will mean better control of cars. Services will improve and even the flow of people will be better smoother through the use of gate access and turn styles."

I ask about the medical arrangements. "We don’t have medical teams with doctors on call, but everybody aboard the ferry has first aid training. The master have a medical certificate which is much wider and deeper in scope than a simple first aid certificate. All the ships have medical equipment and medicines on board. There is a marine evacuation system on board every vessel too."

I draw Mr Sullivan’s attention the fact that in an interview with Censu Galea in the Country Profiler, Mr Galea says that the Gozo Channel Co. will soon have a fixed term contract at the end of which services will be tendered. Is privatisation in sight and if not, why not? "We have no brief for privatisation. We have a social obligation contract. Gozo Channel is finalising a contract whereby services have to be provided. In return the Company will be compensated for loss-making factors. The contract should be for between five and seven years. After that it will go for tender. The government ferry services will remain and the boats will be operated on charter. The ferries, because of their increased power have become more expensive to run. The company will eventually have to stop subsidising rates. Who knows, frequent traveller points might be introduced!

Privatisation is not possible because, as I said before, the harbours are too small to accommodate more than one operator. The public tender to run the service will be the only way that competition will be able to occur."

I ask Mr Sullivan if Gozo Channel is ready for the challenges that joining the EU might bring about. "I was actually involved in transport chapter. When the government re-applied to join the EU, a report was commissioned to study the implications. As a result we have no qualms about it."


Copyright © Network Publications Malta.
Editor: Saviour Balzan
The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07, Malta
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