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Marine Atlantic’s commercial reservation system may see a comeback in the new year

The suspended commercial reservation system pioneered by Marine Atlantic may be reinstated if the Retail Council of Canada and a private consulting firm can sway stakeholders to amend their 2010 decision.

The suspended commercial reservation system pioneered by Marine Atlantic may be reinstated if the Retail Council of Canada and a private consulting firm can sway stakeholders to amend their 2010 decision.

Marine Atlantic is willing to revisit their commercial reservation system, even though the Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association (APTA) moved to dissolve the system.

Jean-Marc Picard, the executive director of the APTA posits the current system suffices commercial needs.

“[Marine Atlantic] has added new boats with more capacity and the service has actually improved, but most delays are caused by weather and mechanical issues, which are still going to be there whether we have a reservation system or not,” said Picard.

“The first time the reservation system was launched, it didn’t go very well,” said Picard. “It was just issue after issue and chaos. It was costing everyone more money, the service got worse instead of getting better, plus, they didn’t have enough capacity back then to handle the volume either.”

A return to the former system, according to Picard, would disrupt a system that is currently working well and has leveled the field for smaller businesses – a ground that was previously uneven, though not by design.

“Companies with good cash flow could pre-book as many spots as they wanted and they could book a couple of weeks ahead of time.  Firms with not as much cash flow at their disposal had to wait until the last minute to reserve, which created some issues due to [a lack of] availability when they needed it,” said Picard. “Some companies had to wait five to six days before the first available spot opened up.  The companies would also cancel spots at the last minute if they were no longer required, but Marine Atlantic couldn’t manage filling those empty spots because you needed a reservation.”

While it is evident that the former system had flaws, Picard does not believe an open-session discussion amongst stakeholders can solve previous inefficiencies.
“They want feedback, but if you have 50 carriers at a stakeholders meeting, you are going to get 50 different suggestions,” Picard said.

Marine Atlantic, on the other hand, is willing to reopen the debate for a commercial reservation system.

Darrell Mercer,  a spokesman for Marine Atlantic, contends that with the help of an outside consultant, Grant Thornton, a reasonable system may be implemented.

“We’ve received requests from the Retail Council of Canada to bring back some type of reservation system,” said Mercer. “We’ve hired an outside, independent consultant to help us with the consultation process. They are going to look at the old system, take into consideration both the viewpoint of the retail council and the commercial trucking industry and determine whether or not there is some common ground.”

Marine Atlantic is aware that the former system was flawed, but has noted that no concrete decisions regarding the return of their system have been made.

“We recognize that back in 2010 when we had initial commercial reservation system there were some problems – we didn’t have enough capacity at that point in time. We know that any new system would have to look at the shortfalls of the old system,” Mercer said. “At this point in time, we haven’t agreed to return to a system, all we have done is agreed to look at the potential to return to some system.”

“For us to return to such a system, there would be significant planning internally. We would need to look at what technology would be required and of course and what upgrades would have to be made,” Mercer said. “At this point in time it would be premature to say that we were going back to such a system.”

At present, Marine Atlantic offers a premium booking service that allows a company to reserve a spot on a vessel should they need to move material immediately ­– but with a limited number of spots at each crossing – earmarking a spot can become prohibitively challenging.

After inclement weather conditions, the number of companies looking to book through the premium service escalates beyond the available capacity on the sailing vessel.

“It is in place to make travel more convenient for people who need more certainty, again, we want to have a fair and equitable system for all of our users,” Mercer said.

The Retail Council of Canada (RCC) isn’t satisfied with the prevailing model and has initiated the call for change.

Jim Cormier, RCC’s Atlantic office director, will help Atlantic Marine find new common ground for the present problems.

“We’ve been working a lot with Marine Atlantic to improve the service and our members simply feel that a commercial reservation system would really improve the ability of business to move product.”

“Getting product over into the stores to meet the needs of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador is always challenging,” said Cormier. “We understand that it is the North Atlantic and they get winter, there will always be delays. That said, once the weather is cleared, we want that improved predictability.”

Cormier and many of the companies he represents are not satisfied with the premium booking system.

“The premium booking basically says, ‘we’ll give you the booking, but you have to pay double the price.’ That is a huge cost increase,” said Cormier. “It’s hard justifying paying double for the exact same service.”

“We’re not asking for the moon here. We, along with our partners, if we were to get the system back, would do the front end administrative work to ensure the bookings are done and we are open to talking to Marine Atlantic about ways that it could be done fairly.”

The RCC have considered several changes that could ameliorate the old system, such as clearly stating the number of commercial reservations a company is allowed to make on any given sailing, levy penalties for companies who overbook and consider a web-based system that companies could have their own web accounts to make bookings or change bookings within an allotted time frame set by Marine Atlantic.

“You shouldn’t charge additional fees for using the reservation service because it should provide administrative savings to Marine Atlantic and they should always honour the commercial booking – even if Marine Atlantic should fall behind schedule, which was an issue members complained about in the past,” Cormier said.

The council also recommended lifting any cancellation charges as long as 12 hours notice has been provided as well as allowing for last-minute reservations within a pre-determined time from sailing.

“These are just ideas we put out for initial conversation,” said Cormier.

Marine Atlantic has not yet set a date for stakeholder sessions, but hope to have a time set for the end of November.

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