While passenger ferry activity has stopped on the major routes in China and Japan, the situation is similar in the Baltic Sea, due to countries closing their borders.
Scandinavian ferry companies have announced the laying off of literally thousands of employees, due to passenger services being halted on the busy routes that criss-cross the Baltic Sea.
For example, Color Line announced the temporary lay off about 2,000 employees, while Fjord Line is also cutting about 100 of its Norwegian staff.
Color Line has also ceased operations on its flagship Oslo/Kiel route.
Last week, large Gothenburg-based ferry company, Stena Line, said it would have to lay off 950 employees in Sweden.
The majority were employed by Stena Line Scandinavia AB. Job redundancies will involve those employed both on board the ferries and onshore,including on nine Swedish flagged vessels, as well as employees in the two sister companies, Stena Line Travel Group and Retail & Food Services.
On 14th March, Stena Line stopped operating the Oslo/Frederikshavn route until further notice and on 19th March, the decision was made to permanently close the route after more than 40 years of operation. As a result, Stena has closed its Oslo office and the ‘Stena Saga’ is laid up in Gothenburg.
”This is a tough decision to make, but we are experiencing tough times in general as a company. The Oslo-Frederikshavn route is totally dependent on its passenger service and summer peak season. We estimate that we due to the Coronavirus, we won´t have a peak season this year and we simply can´t afford to wait and hope until next year,” explained Niclas Mårtensson, Stena Line CEO.
This week, Finnish-based ferry Viking Line said it will continue to operate its most important routes, although concentrating on freight.
These include freight traffic between Helsinki and Tallinn, as well as on the Turku/Åland/Stockholm route.
“To safeguard the security of supply between Finland and Sweden, we are maintaining service on part of our routes. We are grateful for the understanding our cargo customers have shown us in this exceptional situation. We hope that the situation will normalise as soon as possible,” said Harri Tamminen, Viking Line’s Freight Director.
Earlier, Viking Line had said that the service operated by the ‘Mariella’ and ‘Gabriella’ between Helsinki and Stockholm had been suspended from 18th March to 13th April, 2020. Viking Line said that it was following the Finnish authorities instructions, who had closed the country’s borders, during the state of emergency in effect in the country.
“To safeguard the security of supply between Finland and Sweden, we are maintaining service on the Turku/Åland/Stockholm route. We are also still making one sailing to Tallinn from Helsinki six days a week. The situation is highly exceptional, and I would like to take the opportunity to thank all our customers, partners and in particular our own employees for the understanding they have shown in this difficult situation,” said Jan Hanses, President and CEO of Viking Line.
Viking Line has also suspended its service between Mariehamn and Kapellskär from 17th March to 13th April, 2020 operated by the ropax ‘Rosella’.
The Helsinki/Tallinn route’s ‘Viking XPRS’ timetable was changed for the period 17th to 31st March, with a reduced number of departures.
In addition, all cruises on ‘Viking Cinderella’ were cancelled from 16th March to 16th April, 2020. She cruised between Mariehamn and Stockholm.
Later, thanks to financial support from Finland’s National Emergency Supply Agency, Viking Line said it could guarantee that there is functioning transport service between Finland, Åland and Sweden in the current crisis situation of closed borders. Passenger traffic has virtually ceased, but demand for cargo transport remains high.
“We consider it important to maintain functions that are vital to society in a way that is as close to normal as possible even in these exceptional circumstances. We are grateful for the support we are receiving from Finland’s National Emergency Supply Agency. This allows us to maintain some of our normal traffic,” said Hanses.
Around 90% of Finnish imports and exports are transported by sea, thus the continuity of vessel traffic is necessary to keep society running. Finnish passenger vessels constitute an important complement to cargo traffic in terms of the security of supply, the company said.
Elsewhere, DFDS has suspended its key passenger routes of Newcastle (North Shields) to Amsterdam (Ijmuiden) and Oslo to Copenhagen until further notice.
Tallink Silja Line has also closed some of its key routes.
For example, the Tallinn/Stockholm operation was closed on 15th March; Riga/Stockholm was closed the following day; Tallinn/Helsinki was closed on 17th March; Helsinki/Stockholm traffic was suspended from 19thMarch.
Turku/Stockholm route ships ‘Baltic Princess’ and ‘Galaxy’ started to temporarily operate on the Turku/Kapellskär route on the same day to provide a cargo link between Finland and Sweden, while they later returned to Turku/Stockholm route via Långnäs in Åland Island to secure cargo traffic during this situation.
Finally, the Tallinn/Helsinki ropax ‘Star’ has started operating between Estonia and Germany carrying cargo only.
To help ferry operators switch to pure freight operations, Ports of Stockholm has halved ferry port fees at all three of the company’s ports.
This move is aimed at ensuring the continuous flow of shipping and the transport of goods between Sweden and its neighbouring countries, the ports said.
The new tariffs will apply for one month and commenced on 17th March.
“We need to support our customers in maintaining what is a societally important function for the transport of goods to and from our neighbouring countries. By halving port fees, we hope to contribute to maintaining this traffic that in many ways functions as a bridge between us and our neighbours,” explained Thomas Andersson, Ports of Stockholm Managing Director.
On the major Dover/Calais route, P&O Ferries is strengthening its freight capacity as the UK relies on the ferry route for fresh foods, medicine imports and other vital supplies, the company explained.
P&O Ferries’ Calais workforce are taking on new roles in freight handling. Check-in and loading has been modified to avoid direct contact, cleaning protocols have been intensified on board ships and the air conditioning has been switched to fresh air.
P&O Ferries’ CEO, Janette Bell, said;“P&O Ferries is doing vital work to ensure the supplies of food, medicines and other supplies to millions of people. In the average week we transport 25,000 loads of freight between France and Britain. The Calais/Dover crossing is also critical to the economy of France, as well as the UK, Ireland and the wider European Union.
“I want to thank every single member of the P&O Ferries team, especially our colleagues in Calais, who are keeping the flow of goods moving through this crisis. The wellbeing of millions of people depends on them. I urge all governments to back the commitment of our colleagues by designating port workers as key workers, to secure further the flow of goods,” she said.
In the Mediterranean, services to and from Sicily, Albania, North Africa and the other islands have been suspended.
At least one GNV ropax is to be used as a makeshift hospital in Italy.
In Greece, the authorities have said that the total number of passengers on the many ferry routes are around 77% less than normal. The ferry companies have asked the Greek Government for help.
On 26th March, UK ratings union, RMT has called on the UK Government to issue guidance on social distancing, safety equipment, cabin sharing and other safety issues for seafarers during the COVID-19 crisis, particularly on passenger ferries.
RMT general secretary, Mick Cash,explained: “Some employers in the passenger ferry sector are keeping restaurants and bars open on their ships. This is exposing RMT members to excessive risk during the Coronavirus pandemic.
“The (UK) Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) has produced welcome guidance for crew and passengers when embarking or disembarking ships. However, there is nothing for seafarers who are continuing to serve the travelling public, including fellow supply chain workers like road freight drivers, on domestic and continental ferry services from our ports network.
“We need specific and effective guidance from the MCA that applies to my members who are increasingly vulnerable from a highly infectious virus that continues to wreak havoc for crew and passengers in the cruise line industry,” he said.