There have been a lot of complaints circulating about the reservation system for the Steamship Authority. A major point of contention last summer was that on the same day an Islander couldn’t get a reservation, there were vessels that had empty spaces on their freight deck as they embarked for Woods Hole, some with more space than others.
There’s nothing more frustrating than seeing open space on a ferry that you can’t access when you really need to get off the Island, and it raises the question of whether the Steamship cares more about shipping companies than Islanders.
The complaint from last summer continues to be an issue today.
But while there are valid complaints with the Steamship Authority management — over budget costs on its new website and freight-boat conversions, to name a couple — the issue of reservations and open space on ferry freight decks is more of a reality of living on a remote Island, and less to do with any failings from the Steamship.
It’s a complex issue that the Steamship is taking seriously and trying to address.
The issue of open space on ferry freight decks is twofold: freight companies tend to book a summer’s worth of reservations, and don’t always show up. When one truck doesn’t show up, that leaves room for up to four cars.
Two, the reservation system is done in real time, which can lead to imperfections. Unlike airplanes, where each passenger fits nicely into one seat, trucks and cars come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and that leaves complications.
As for the freight companies, it’s the cost of doing business. Shipping companies, grocery delivery companies, lumber companies: They don’t always show up for a reservation, and they don’t bother calling to cancel. It’s baked into the cost of doing business on an Island.
When there is a no-show, there are several options for the Steamship Authority. First, the Steamship will take any cars that have made reservations, or any travelers that are in an emergency.
Next, staff will turn to the so-called blue line — spaces reserved for Island residents.
Or, they’ll take trucks that are lined up for the next ferry, as is often the case. Taking trucks for the next ferry leads to a “snowball” effect. After several trucks don’t show up throughout the day, and the Steamship keeps pulling reservations from the next ferry, by the end of the day, the freight boats can become emptier and emptier.
Hence the frustration from Islanders who tried to make a reservation, and the bad optics of boats with empty spots.
Steamship officials say that this year has had some particularly difficult days. On the Monday following Juneteenth and Father’s Day weekend, there were close to 60 no-shows.
Steamship management has tried to make adjustments to address the issue. They are developing a screen tool that will show the number of feet available on a vessel, which will give an easy visual representation to the reservation clerks and staff. That will make it easier to see how many cars they can get on, and help staff deal with the complexities of different-size vehicles.
The SSA has also taken steps to make it easier for Islanders to get a reservation before the season begins, and before the rest of the masses start booking. The so-called head start program allows Islanders to book up to 10 trips during the busy summer season, up from five from last summer.
Also, the blue line allows up to 12 vehicles to queue up at any given time, and gives preference for vehicles in the Steamship excursion program — again, for Islanders. While it’s much less convenient sitting in line compared with making a reservation, it is an option.
There’s also a preferred spaces program that sets aside areas for Islanders, which opens up seven days ahead of ferries, although that does require getting to the ticket office early.
There’s also the staff at the terminals, who are patient and pleasant, and can find space for travelers in a bind, whether it’s a medical emergency or someone, for instance, trying to get to a wake.
Is the system perfect? Probably not. Could the Steamship be less favorable to freight traffic? Possibly. But some of those shipping items are vital to Island life, like medicine and food.
Is there the possibility that the Steamship could charge a company a nominal fee if they don’t call ahead to cancel a reservation? While that might encourage companies to give the Steamship the heads-up and maybe make it easier for residents to get a ferry trip, we’d venture to guess that getting shipments to the Island might only get more expensive, and thus the price of goods would only get more expensive.
While these are real frustrations felt by Islanders, the difficulties of getting off the Island are a reality — call it a tax — for living on an Island. Some options might involve waiting in line on an early morning, but at least there are options.