Fledgling ferry service Ponte Ferries has incensed hundreds of ticket-holders on its first scheduled Malta-Sicily catamaran crossings after suddenly cancelling the trips with barely 24 hours’ notice.
The company was forced to postpone the start of its service because it failed to secure berthing facilities in the Sicilian port of Augusta in time for its planned launch date today, 6 August.
Citing a “last minute legal challenge” by “a competitor” over an obligatory permit concession from Augusta Port, Ponte Ferries’ eleventh-hour announcement that the trips have been cancelled means hundreds of families planning to travel by car to and from Sicily have been left stranded.
Ponte Ferries is a joint venture between Fortina’s Zammit Tabonas and Gozitan tomato-based products manufacturer Magro.
Virtu Ferries, which has been operating a Malta-Sicily service for the past 30 years, responded immediately to Ponte’s claim, declaring that it had made “no such challenge”.
Ponte announced in June that it would start its daily three-hour crossings on 6 August, and went on to sell hundreds of tickets – despite the fact that it had not yet been granted berthing facilities in Sicily.
Three weeks ago, The Shift reported that neither Ponte nor Virtu had been given the green light to start ferrying passengers to Augusta, although both had made an application for a concession to berth and disembark passengers in the port.
The Augusta Port Authorities (Autorita’ di Sistema Portuale del Mare di Sicilia Orientale) had told The Shift that while it was dealing with two applications, neither Virtu nor Ponte could start operations before a decision on the concession was made.
Asked to state what would happen on August 6, as Ponte Ferries had announced their commencement date and were selling tickets, a spokesman for the Augusta Port Authority said “no one can start a service without our permit”.
The Shift is informed that when prospective ticket holders confronted Ponte on these reports, Ponte customer care officers told them that “The Shift’s story was fake news”.
Indeed, Ponte officials were still telling customers the catamaran would sail as scheduled, today, August 6, right up to yesterday morning – just a few hours before their cancellation announcement.
Backlash from customers
Ponte Ferries hasn’t yet put forward a new schedule for the start of their Malta-Augusta ferry service. The Shift has learned that the Augusta port authorities have still not decided on the berthing facilities concession application of both Ponte and Virtu.
The 300-odd passengers who had bought tickets to sail to Sicily this morning are, predictably, furious about the last-minute cancellation of their plans, even though Ponte attempted to appease them by offering alternative arrangements.
Many took to social media complaining about the “false expectations” and “amateurism” of Ponte, accusing them of “selling fish in the sea” when they knew that they had no permit to start their service.
Others complained that they could not get through to the company to make separate arrangements or claim compensation, even though Ponte promised chartered flights and free vouchers as an alternative.
Competitors open fire
Ponte Ferries’ announcement of the cancelled trips yesterday pointed the finger at Virtu, claiming that the forced delay was due “to a last-minute challenge with Sicilian authorities by another competing operator, which objected to Ponte’s use of the Augusta Port”.
Virtu immediately rubbished this claim and said that it had made “no such, or indeed any other, challenge”.
“Mindful of time required and unlike our competitors we refrained from selling tickets for this route, and we will not sell until such time as our permit is approved,” Virtu said in a statement.
“Ponte Ferries should not have sold and should not be selling tickets: it is this conduct that has caused their last predicament and, more importantly, their clients’ distress and delusion”, the veteran ferry company said.
The proper process
In order to start operating a ferry service with any of the Italian ports, a prospective operator must first apply to the relevant port authority for a concession and the grant of berthing facilities, as well as satisfy other requirements, including maritime permits for the vessel used.
Ponte started the long application process only last May, following which the Italian port authorities published the application and called for comments in June.
Although the application was still being processed, Ponte Ferries announced in June that the company would start ferry services to Augusta on August 6, and immediately started selling tickets.
A spokesman for the Augusta Port Authority told The Shift that while the concession applications of both Virtu and Ponte are still “works in progress”, another application by Virtu for a similar concession to the port of Catania is also still under consideration.
Both Maltese operators are expected to be granted their concessions for Augusta, however the Italian authorities have not indicated a date for when that might be.