ICS and IATA call on global governments to defuse the crew change time bomb

Currently, more than 100,000 seafarers are stranded at sea due to COVID-19 curbs preventing them from entering or transiting countries. Credit: Synergy Group

With thousands of seafarers marooned at sea due to coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)-enforced lockdowns worldwide, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) and International Air Transport Association (IATA) have issued a joint call on global governments to take urgent measures to facilitate crew change flights for seafarers.

In addition, an alliance of shipowner and management companies representing more than 1,500 vessels and over 70,000 seafarers has echoed the call, demanding that those governments adopt their developed detailed crew change-over risk assessment plans.

Every month, about 100,000 seafarers are rotated on and off vessels worldwide. However, the closure of borders and strict quarantine rules due to COVID-19 restrictions are preventing crew changes from being completed in accordance with employment contracts and international conventions, including the Maritime Labour Convention. Thousands of seafarers are being forced to extend their service on board ships following many months spent at sea, because they cannot be replaced. In addition, government-imposed travel restrictions aggravate the situation. Flights to repatriate or position marine personnel are unavailable. There are also thousands of seafarers stranded ashore with no income to make.

To address the problem, ICS and IATA have united to develop what they call ‘safe and pragmatic solutions’ that governments can implement to facilitate crew changes at certain airports. They are also working with their global regulators – the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Maritime Organization – on recommendations to governments for standardised procedures and protocols for positioning crew while preventing the further spread of COVID-19.

As such, ICS and IATA are calling on all governments to designate a specific and limited number of crew change at airports for the safe movement and repatriation of crew. This would achieve critical mass for the resumption of crew change flights to these airports, keeping global supply chains running.

Priority should be given to airports that are close to major shipping lanes that also have direct air connections to principal seafarer countries of residence, such as China, India, and the Philippines, as well as destinations in Western and Eastern Europe.

In addition to the work of ICS and IATA, the alliance of shipowner and ship management companies has identified key ports where collective crew changes can potentially be organised. These ports include Singapore, Houston, Rotterdam, Gibraltar, Jebel Ali, Fujairah, Hong Kong, and Shanghai.

It has called for governments and regulators to recognise the critical role seafarers play in the supply chain, demanding immediate governmental and inter-governmental action to enable the resumption of crew changes, including the designation of seafarers as key workers.

The alliance has also developed a detailed risk assessment methodology and drawn up action plans that it, as employer of seafarers and organiser of crew logistics, can implement to mitigate the risks of infection during essential crew change-overs. However, it says that urgent political and regulatory support is required to enact them.