Ferry costs run up

Extra staff, lost passengers cost state after fire on Columbia

Posted: Thursday, June 15, 2000

Fixing the boat is just one of the costs the Alaska Marine Highway System faces after a June 6 fire aboard the ferry Columbia.

The ferry system is also spending more money on reservations and terminal staff to contact passengers about changing reservations because the Columbia is out of service.

And it's losing income from the one money-making boat in the Marine Highway System, said Bob Doll, director of the Southeast region of the state Department of Transportation.

It will be some time before the full financial impacts of the fire are known, Doll said. ``It's a little too early to tell whether we'd have to ask for any additional funds'' from the Legislature, he said.

Most ferries still on schedule

Despite the loss of the ferry Columbia for the summer, most Alaska Marine Highway System vessels will operate on their normal routes this summer.

``We tried to be minimally disruptive to all the other ships,'' said Capt. George Capacci, the ferry system's general manager.

Five out of seven ships are basically on their printed schedules, he said, including the Malaspina, which has a daily run from Juneau to Haines to Skagway and back in the summer.

The main disruptions will be borne by passengers who had planned to travel with vehicles on the Columbia, which ran weekly between Bellingham, Wash., and Skagway. The Matanuska, a smaller vessel, will take over that run and won't be able to accommodate all the vehicles. It probably will be able to handle all passengers without vehicles.

With the Matanuska diverted to Bellingham, the Aurora will help pick up the slack on the Matanuska's normal route to Prince Rupert, British Columbia. That vessel should be able to handle that along with its normal Hollis-Ketchikan-Metlakatla run, Southeast Regional Transportation Director Bob Doll said.

Reservations staff are busy contacting people whose reservations need to be changed, so phone lines may be busy. Ferry officials are encouraging people who need to make reservations to do so via the Internet, if possible. The system has a new Web address: www.state.ak.us/ferry.

The fire was confined to a relatively small area of the Columbia's control room, but that area is the vessel's electrical heart. The process of getting repair plans approved and then having the repairs done is expected to take weeks.

The Columbia will be out of service the rest of the summer and probably the rest of the year, state officials said. The ferry Matanuska will handle the Columbia's normal weekly Bellingham, Wash., to Skagway run, but it's a smaller boat. It can hold 88 vehicles, compared to 134 on the Columbia.

That means ferry staff are having to contact passengers with vehicles who had booked passage on the Columbia and ask if they can change their plans -- perhaps by traveling without a vehicle or by driving to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and catching another ferry there.

``That represents potentially I would say somewhere in the order of 20,000 people,'' Doll said. ``Now we probably won't need to contact every one of them, but we need to contact enough of them to ensure that we can accommodate those who still want to travel aboard the ships that we have.''

The need to make those extra contacts comes at a time of year when staff are already busy with incoming inquiries. And the system is receiving even more calls than usual this year because customers want to know whether their plans will be changed by the fire.

``We're swamped. We're definitely swamped,'' said Joanne Mason, supervisor of the reservations section. ``We stay until we're so tired we can't do anything else but go home.''

Workers in the reservations section are clocking two to four hours of overtime each day, besides coming in an extra day on Saturday, said traffic manager Barbara Fairbanks.

In addition, the section is hiring temporary workers to help out. Doll said he doesn't know yet how much the overtime and extra staffing will cost.

Also, the ferry system is trying to maintain good will among passengers by offering financial incentives for those willing to change their plans and board at Prince Rupert, he said.

That may mean offering them free meals aboard the ship or some other discount on their trip, Doll said. How much that will cost is also still to be determined.

The ferry system will also be losing at least part of the $2 million the Columbia typically makes during the summer season.

The Columbia was designed specifically for the Bellingham route, Doll said. It almost never sails with space available in the summer and is the only vessel that consistently turns a profit.

The Matanuska will make more money than it usually does by taking over the lucrative Bellingham to Skagway run, but not as much as the Columbia does because it doesn't have the same capacity.

There may be some savings from not having to fully staff the Columbia, but Doll doesn't expect that to balance out the other costs.

Except for a skeleton crew that is traveling with the Columbia as it is towed, the Columbia crew have been distributed to other ships.

Ferry system General Manager George Capacci said he is talking with the ferry workers' union now about the issue, but he doesn't expect there to be any layoffs.

A more likely result is that some workers who are low in seniority may not get as many hours of summer employment as they would have otherwise. Also, workers who normally can't take vacation in the summer may be able to.

The cost of repairs to the boat itself is also still unknown. Capacci estimated it could run anywhere from $500,000 to more than $1 million.

Juneau Empire staff member Lori Thomson contributed to this report.

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