March 15, 2012

Controlling interest- Sea Traffic Control?

One of the regulatory changes being pushed for, in the aftermath of the Costa Concordia incident, is a continuous monitoring of cruise ship positions and navigational data by management ashore. The pressure to do this is coming largely from the United States so far; from high profile lawyer John Arthur Eaves Jr, amongst others. No political lightweight- he ran for Governor of Mississippi a few years ago- Eaves will seek, in a lawsuit against Carnival where he represents 70 Concordia passengers, massive changes in the industry, including  "more responsibility on the part of cruise ship operators and the implementation of a tracking system for ships that would be similar to the flight control system found in aviation." 

Managing partner of International Registries Clay Maitland implies that the implementation of continuous shoreside oversight of cruise ships is just a matter of time. “I think we are going to see the underwriters and others insisting that the management of a ship [from shore] is a 24 hours a day, seven day a week affair, regardless of the training of the crew," he writes, resulting in  “even further restrictions on the declining independence of ships’ Masters”. 

I don't know if an Air Traffic Control kind of setup- with managers monitoring ships instead of a State owned ATC, as happens in civil aviation- is in the offing. What I do know is this: There will be new regulations after the Concordia. Chances are these will be the usual knee jerk, ill thought out and poorly implemented (also poorly implementable) regulations that are shipping's bugbear; although the disaster-regulation-next disaster-next regulation cycle is not unique to the industry, its record is uniquely awful when it comes to using regulations to meet stated safety objectives. Relatively new cases in point, the STCW, ISPS and ISM regulations.

That aside, there is an inherent problem with civil liability lawyers pushing for maritime regulation, as Mr Eaves is doing, simply because they are not qualified to do so. More bluntly, they don't have a clue about what their knee jerk responses will mean on the ground or whether they will atually enhance passenger safety. Besides, the Concordia incident did not happen because the owners did not know what route the ship was taking. Quite the contrary; management had long successfully pressurised Costa Masters to take the 'touristic navigation' route, according to all reports. Even the boy selling peanuts on the beach probably  knew that cruise ships came close to that island and hooted and stuff. 

Of course, what a ATC like control function (lets call it STC, for Sea Traffic Control, shall we?) would do is shift greater responsibility - and therefore, greater liability- ashore. Owners would find it much harder to play the 'rogue Captain' game as in the Concordia. Errors of management would become glaringly obvious, greatly hampering a shipmanagers blame-the-Master-and-limit-liability manoeuvre that is a Pavlovian reflex today. 

In addition, I have, quite apart from issues of liability and oversight, more practical concerns with all this. The last thing a ship Captain needs is a remote-back seat driver, not because of his fragile ego but because the onus for safe navigation lies with the Master alone. We may deny it, but a 'Super Captain' monitoring the ship sitting in an office will feel obliged to give his input to the captain or navigating officer- after all, the purpose of any STC will be to monitor the ship's position and avoid accidents. If so, this Input- given remotely in real time, and especially when given to a junior navigating officer, will be an instruction at worst and interference at best. In any case it will be confusing and is likely to create conflict and indecision on the ship- and will probably result in less than safe navigation. 

I have no problems with the 'declining independence', as Maitland says, of the ship's Captain. I do have problems when his authority is eroded and his responsibility confusingly diluted- while his accountability remains unchanged. 

The ATC instructs aviators to change course, speed and altitude as a matter of routine. Do we expect the STC to give similar instructions to the Captain if, in their opinion, the ship is heading into danger? Keep in mind that, unless recently experienced Masters are used in an STC, we may find out of touch Masters- with little Command experience  to begin with- are instructing well experienced Masters at sea. This would be ridiculous except that this is already happening from many managers' offices; a formal STC will only make things worse. Master's will find the phrase 'overriding authority' ringing even more hollow if the STC degenerates into a 'Super Captain' scenario; chances are that it will.

The bottom line is that- pressures of 'touristic navigation' or not- most everybody at sea and ashore knows very well, most of the time, what is safe and what is not. An STC can probably help if the bridge team fails to appreciate enhanced risk or is situationally less than fully aware; however, it is hard to see how a sea traffic controller will see a looming disaster faster from the swivel chair in his office than the Captain will from the bridge. 

The solution to the recurrence of a Concordia type incident is not yet another layer of iffy oversight or another back seat driver breathing down a Captain's neck, especially if he is an accessory to the crime of touristic navigation. A Sea Traffic Controller advising a Captain in clipped tones about dangers and non conformities in navigation sounds like a sexy idea, but- like most sexy ideas usually are- it is likely unworkable.

Besides, aren't existing VTS systems-essentially State run marine traffic monitoring systems  that use radar, CCTV, AIS, VHF etc- designed to do just that? 


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