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Monday, June 17 2019 @ 05:21 PM UTC

Pilots fight Panama Canal Authority over expansion

Canal ExpansionOfficials in charge of expanding the canal say Gaillard Cut can handle two post-panamaxes side-by-side but the pilots disagree

When expansion of the Panama Canal is complete, a battalion of local pilots will guide post-panamax vessels through the waterway’s new locks and widened channels.

But the leader of the union representing those 270 pilots tells TradeWinds that its members are being frozen out of discussions over navigation procedures for the widened canal, even though they will be on the frontline of ensuring larger vessels make it through without casualty.

Panama Canal Pilots’ Association president Rainero Salas says the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) is imposing unsafe navigation procedures without the technical endorsement of the pilots.

And the pilots say the ACP is deviating from an expansion proposal presented in 2006 and disregarding studies on how vessels will transit the canal’s narrowest channels, while replacing the original navigation plan with one that is “irresponsible” and “reckless”.

However, in a statement provided to TradeWinds, the ACP said it recognises its workforce as its most valuable resource.

“Decisions made by the Panama Canal Administration regarding the operation of the expanded Canal are not made arbitrarily. They take into consideration the very valuable opinion of highly experienced workforce,” the agency said.

And it says negotiations should take place at the bargaining table as part of efforts to strike a new deal covering the 2,150 of its employees that are unionised.

Salas says the pilots want the ACP to start from scratch on developing navigational procedures, clawing back mandates and launching a more inclusive dialogue.

And the union leader believes the pilots will win in the end.

It is not clear how the war of words will play out as the delayed expansion project continues toward completion, which is currently scheduled for late 2016. By law, the pilots cannot go on strike but Salas says they have the discretion to refuse work they consider unsafe and to request, for example, additional tug support.

Salas acknowledges the canal could suffer slowdowns in transits if the two sides do not come to an agreement on operations.

“It’s not a threat. It’s just a fact. It can only be in the best interest of the canal that [we] do this carefully,” he said.

As an example of navigational procedures that the pilots question, Salas points to the ACP’s plans for navigation in the Culebra Cut, also known as the Gaillard Cut. It is the narrowest portion of the canal, buttressed in some parts by sheer rock walls.

The union leader says the ACP has issued notices to the pilots that post-panamax vessels of 49 metres in beam will be able to “meet” in the cut with the support of two tugs each, even though prior studies advise that the width accommodates only a single post-panamax ship safely. He alleges that there are no new hydrodynamic studies to support the change.

“This is not right. This is not responsible,” he said.

The ACP, however, says widening the cut to 218 metres will safely accommodate two post-panamax ships side-by-side.

Salas says the decision made years ago to build locks that use tugboats instead of locomotives will already have a negative impact on operations. The ACP counters, however, that using tugs for canal transits is a common practice around the world and the agency has purchased 14 state-of-the-art vessels for the task.

But lock design is in the past and construction is well underway.

The pilots say that they now want to be a part of making the most of what the ACP decided to build.

The pilots complain that the ACP has not set up sufficient training programmes to help them become familiarised with the new locks, despite the challenges of moving post-panamax ships through triple-chamber locks with tug support.

The ACP, however, argues that pilots have access to simulators using post-panamax vessels and that it recently unveiled additional training plans including scale model manoeuvring and the chartering of a post-panamax ship to begin trial lock transits once the first set of locks is complete.

Editor's Comment: The ACP will eventually learn that ignoring the warnings being issued by the Panama Canal Pilots was a mistake. But unfortunately there will likely be an accident first. Then the ACP will blame the pilot, and refuse to accept they adopted a significantly flawed plan from the start.

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