Ponte Ferries begins sea-testing ferry, but actual start date of new Malta-Sicily service remains elusive

Ponte Ferries, the new ‘low-cost’ catamaran service to Sicily that was scheduled to start operating three-hour daily connections to the Port of Augusta last August, has begun testing its operations – two months after its original launch date, The Shift can reveal.

However, no date has yet been set for the start of the passenger service proper, because the Italian port authorities have not yet given the company the green light.

Ponte Ferries’ passengers who’d booked tickets to travel on new service to Sicily last summer and been let down at the last minute when the company suddenly cancelled all its scheduled services, told The Shift that they’ve still not been given any information on when they’ll be able to use their ferry tickets they were given in compensation for the abrupt cancellations.

Ponte Ferries CEO Edward Zammit Tabona refused to reply to The Shift’s request for further details and failed to provide us with the date the company is planning to re-launching its service proper.

According to reports in the Sicilian media, Ponte Ferries last week started making port trials, using its 22-year-old catamaran HSM Artemis, in the Augusta port.

The Sicilian port authorities said Ponte was given permission for the testing in order for the catamaran to carry out sea trials and berth in Augusta to check whether all is in place for the eventual commencement of its service.

However, the port authorities – Autorita’ di Sistema Poirtuale del Mare di Sicilia Orientale – underlined that these were only exploratory trials and made it clear that so far Ponte Ferries has not been given the green light to start its commercial services.

According to the same authority, it is still evaluating two similar concession bids filed by Ponte Ferries and Virtu Ferries, which have both asked for permission to start a daily fast-ferry service between Malta and Augusta.

Virtu Ferries – which has been running its catamaran service between Malta and Sicily for the past 30 years – has also not yet been given clearance to start its services to Augusta and so far, has not announced the date it will start its daily crossings.

One of Virtu’s catamarans currently on the Pozzallo route

The company had said that while it intends to start operating, on a daily basis, to both the ports of Augusta and Catania, it would only start selling tickets once the port authorities give them the green light.

It is not yet clear why the Sicilian authorities are taking so long to clear both Ponte’s and Virtu’s applications, although this is normally an issue of bureaucracy.

So far, Virtu still offers the only fast ferry connection to Sicily through its daily crossings to Pozzallo.

False start by Ponte

Ponte Ferries, established last year through a joint venture between  the Fortina’s Zammit Tabonas and Gozitan tomato producers Magro Brothers, announced the start of their daily service to Augusta in June, and started selling low-priced tickets for their planned voyages from August 6 onwards.

However, as reported by The Shift weeks earlier, the nascent company had begun selling tickets without first having obtained the necessary permits.

This led to a huge backlash from the hundreds of customers who’d paid for their holidays in Sicily, as Ponte Ferries waited for the eleventh hour to tell its prospective customers that their trips had to be cancelled.

Ponte claimed that it had to cancel its plans due to “a last-minute legal challenge” by its rival Virtu Ferries. However, Virtu denied that it had filed any challenge to Ponte’s bid for the same concession.

With the two rival companies now vying to start competing on the Malta-Sicily fast ferry routes, the eventual permissions from the Sicilian authorities will increase the options for travellers from one daily crossing to Pozzallo, to four a day – one to Augusta by Ponte Ferries and another three to Pozzallo, Augusta and Catania by Virtu Ferries.

                           
                               
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