SSA considers shift in preferred reservation sale start time

The SSA is diverting ferries from Oak Bluffs to Vineyard Haven. — File photo by Mae Deary

The Steamship Authority (SSA) provides year-round and seasonal Martha’s Vineyard residents with an edge over mainland travelers in the scramble to secure a reservation during peak travel periods. Each day, the boatline sets aside vehicle spaces seven days and one day prior to the departure date for qualified customers.

Spaces go on sale at 8 am. The result is sometimes fierce competition to be first by phone, internet, or in person to secure a reservation through the SSA’s preferred reservation program.

SSA management is proposing several alternatives intended to lessen congestion at the Vineyard Haven terminal where the confluence of people arriving on the 7:45 am boat from Woods Hole, those departing on the busy 8:15 return (one of the busier trips of the day) and those planning to travel the next day or week, compete for the attention and time of the ticket agents and parking spaces.

One proposal is to move the starting time for the sale of preferred spaces to 7:30 am “in order to reduce traffic congestion and other conflicts at the Vineyard Haven Terminal around boat time,” Wayne Lamson, SSA general manager, wrote in a press release. “This would also result in a change in the office hours for the Authority’s Mashpee and Martha’s Vineyard reservation offices.”

All reservation offices would then open at 7:30 am and close at 4 pm rather than 4:30 pm. Another alternative Mr. Lamson said would be to keep the 8 am preferred start time but eliminate the sale of preferred space reservations at the Vineyard Haven terminal. “This would require all walk-in requests for preferred space reservations to be processed through the Authority’s airport reservation office,” he said.

Feedback wanted

In a telephone conversation with The Times Monday, Mr. Lamson said the SSA reserves approximately 140 vehicle spaces. About half are reserved for sale seven days before departure and the remaining spaces go on sale the day before.

“It varies by the time of the years but it is generally about 140,” he said. The spaces are allocated across the schedule.

Spaces set aside seven days before and unused are placed back in the pool about four days before departure. Spaces unclaimed for the next day go up for sale by noon to the general public.

Mr. Lamson said the terminal managers have continually asked if there was some way to change the preferred time to avoid a conflict with the boat schedule.

He said the question is whether to keep the time the same and move all walk-in transactions to the airport office, or move the time up and still allow people to make preferred reservations at the Vineyard Haven terminal as well as at the airport.

“It is what the customer really prefers,” he said.

The SSA said it wants to hear what Islanders have to say on the topic. It is soliciting comments through its website at (click on the SSA tab, then “contact us” and go to “customer feedback“).

Mr. Lamson said the numbers are interesting. “We were surprised to learn that more preferred spaces reservations were sold at the terminal than at the airport,” he said. “We are not quite sure why that is.”

In 2010, the SSA processed 33,550 preferred reservations. The Vineyard Haven office processed 5,888, or almost 18 percent of the total for the year.

The Mashpee reservation office handled the bulk, 13,058 or 39 percent, followed by the web, 7,284 or 22 percent.

The Martha’s Vineyard reservation office processed 4,466 counter transactions and 2,475 preferred phone reservations, or 21 percent of the total.

The Vineyard Haven terminal handled 932 reservations in August compared to 861 counter and 309 phone preferred reservations at the airport office.