SAFETY | Florida overhauls pilotage rates regime

Rajesh Joshi | LLOYD’S LIST

FLORIDA has reformed its system to set state pilotage rates, with two representatives from shipping companies included in a new committee that will set these rates “in the public interest”.

The shipping industry has welcomed the new law. However, Florida pilots said the new law had changed nothing substantive.

The new regime, which is part of a wider transport Bill signed into law by Florida governor Charlie Crist, comes after prolonged acrimony between shipping companies and state pilots.

The new law abolishes the old pilotage rate review board, replacing it with a committee of seven members. Two members will be state pilots and the other will comprise two shipping company representatives, one certified public accountant, and two Florida citizens.

In contrast, the old review board also contained seven members, none of whom was to have served as a pilot, or as a principal or employee of a vessel operator or shipping agent. The old system featured one person with a US Coast Guard master’s license, one CPA, one former judge, and four citizen members.

The Florida governor appointed members in both systems.

Although the new measure stops short of a demand by the Florida Alliance of Maritime Organisations that pilotage rates require legislative approval, Famo welcomed it.

Famo, established last year as an industry lobby representing 33 domestic and international cargo and cruise shipping companies, said: “A balanced board will ensure that all pilot rate increases or decreases are fairly considered.”

The new legislation states: “Pilots may not unilaterally determine their rates, which shall instead be determined by the committee, in the public interest.”

A source from one international shipping company said: “The industry has been trying since last year to change the way rates are set. Formerly, pilots set their rates themselves, and simply presented them to us. With only two members on the committee, we still cannot hijack the process. But now at least we have a say.”

Sarah Bascom, head of the public relations firm for the Florida Harbour Pilots Association, rejected the industry’s viewpoint.

She said: “The old system certainly was not pro-pilot, because pilots merely recommended rates, and it was up to the board to accept or reject. In fact, last year the Jacksonville pilots wanted a rate increase, and the board rejected it.

“Nonetheless, we recognise that there is always room for improvement. Therefore, we endorse the new law. But it is not a major change in how pilotage rates are set.”

Florida pilotage interests earlier this year had ridiculed Famo’s campaign to reform what the association described as a “broken and outdated system” as a “complete fabrication”.

Involving the state legislature in rate setting would further politicise the process, pilots claimed. Florida pilots were uniquely familiar with characteristics of the state’s deepwater ports, and allowing foreign-flagged ships to use their foreign ship officers to navigate vessels into ports would compromise public safety, Florida pilots maintained.

Famo, on the other hand, decried Florida pilotage as a “virtual monopoly” and the “most expensive in America”.

Famo last year released a study commissioned with the Washington Economics Group, which indicated an average annual Florida pilot income of $368,000, and said the state-run pilotage system had curbed the number of pilots available.

Bringing pilotage fees down to a more reasonable level would save the shipping industry $35m a year, Famo claimed.

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