Malta-Sicily fast ferry rivals still waiting for Italian port permits despite ticket sales

The much-anticipated start of Virtu Ferries’ and Ponte Ferries’ Malta-Sicily fast ferries to Augusta and Catania is still hanging in the balance as the Italian Authorities haven’t finished evaluating the concession applications from the two companies and are yet to issue their permits.

The new services are expected to trigger competition between the two service providers. Ponte Ferries has announced that it will start its daily three-hour crossings to the Port of Augusta on 6 August at a price tag of €9.99.

However, the Italian Authorities told The Shift that, so far, neither Ponte nor Virtu have been given a port concession to start their services to Augusta.

According to the Italian port authorities, the only authorised port connection between Malta and Sicily so far is through the port of Pozzallo, a route that’s operated by Virtu.

The Italian authorities confirmed that they’re currently evaluating three concession demands from Malta, one from Ponte for the Port of Augusta and two from Virtu for Augusta and Catania. They reiterated, however that no decision has yet been made.

The Autorita di Sistema Portuale del Mare di Sicilia Orientale  – the body responsible for concessions in both Catania and Augusta – referred The Shift to its rigid rules stating that no operator can start a service without a valid concession.

Sources at the Sicilian port authority told The Shift that the concession requested by both Virtu and Ponte in Augusta may be problematic as the port is not as developed as Catania and the two Maltese competitors have applied for the same space and quay facilities. Still, no decision has been taken on Virtu’s application for Catania either, which doesn’t have the same issues.

Will fast ferries to Augusta start next month?

While no concessions have been granted yet, over and above the required obligatory certification needed for the catamarans to enter these ports, maritime industry sources are raising doubts on the start of fast ferry services to Augusta as planned.

While the Italian port authorities have made it clear that temporary concessions are only given on a limited basis and only in view of an eventual proper fully-fledged concession, Ponte Ferries has ignored repeated questions from The Shift about whether it is confident that it will manage to start the service on 6 August and what will happen to travellers if the necessary permits are not acquired in time.

Competitor Virtu Ferries confirmed that it does not have the permits for either Catania or Augusta and explained this is why it has not yet announced the start of operations.

“We are yet unable to announce the exact start-up date of our services between Malta, Augusta and Catania. We hope to be in a position to do so in the coming weeks once full approval from the Italian port authorities is received,” a spokesman for Virtu Ferries said.

Confirming that Virtu has applied for quay concession in both Augusta and Catania to operate a service with two large catamarans alongside its existing service to Pozzallo, the Virtu Ferries spokesman said that “the start date and ticket sales for the new destinations of Augusta and Catania will only be published once approvals are firmly in hand”.

Long-awaited competition

For many years, the popular crossing between Malta and Sicily was practically a monopoly of Virtu Ferries, which is controlled by the Portelli family.

Although the company did face some competition from airlines and occasionally even from rival maritime services, such as the Grimaldi ferry from Augusta some years ago, it was able to dominate the market despite its stiff pricing.

Last year, following their failed bid to get a government concession to start an exclusive fast ferry service between Malta and Gozo, the Zammit Tabonas (of the Fortina Group) and Magro Brothers (producers and exporters of tomato products) joined forces to acquire a 21-year-old catamaran, following which they set up Ponte Ferries.

Although Ponte’s plans to start their service earlier this year had to be postponed due to the pandemic, the company is now ready to give Virtu a run for its money and announced the start of their service to Augusta next month at very competitive prices.

It is estimated that some 300,000 passengers cross the Malta-Sicily strait by ferry every year. The service is also a lifeline for many Maltese businesses that use the catamaran service for their exports and imports from mainland Europe.

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