A game changer
(The Philippine Star) - January 10, 2016 - 9:00am

Revolutionizing and modernizing inter-island passenger transport is something that only a person with a deep and real understanding of the country’s transportation industry will venture into.

Alfonso Cusi is no stranger to the local transport industry. In 2001, he was invited by then President Arroyo to head the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) where he introduced the passenger terminal concept at the seaports and constructed the Strong Nautical Highway connecting the various islands in the country. Then in 2004, he was appointed as general manager of the Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA) to address the problems besetting the country’s premier airport at that time and to open Terminal 3 which was successfully put to use in 2008. 

Meanwhile, to address the downgrading of the country’s aviation industry, he was appointed to head the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) in March 2010 until he resigned at the end of the same year.
In other words, he knows the ins and outs of air and sea transportation in this country like the back of his hand. 

Cusi’s experience in ports management has allowed him to focus on inter-island shipping after his stint in government. He is now the chairman of Starlite Ferries, Inc., which started operations in 1995 plying the Batangas-Calapan, Mindoro and Roxas-Caticlan routes. 

Today, Starlite Ferries revolutionizing the Philippine shipping industry as the Starlight Pioneer, the first of what would eventually be a fleet of seven brand-new and highly modern mid-sized passenger vessels, begins service between Roxas, Mindoro to Caticlan.

Spare Time tracked down Cusi recently to get his views on what the launching of Starlite Pioneer means and how it will serve as the game changer for the Philippine shipping industry. Here are excerpts from the interview: 

ST: Your company recently launched Starlite Pioneer. Tell us about this. 

AC: The vessel was built from the ground up at the Kegoya Dockyards in Kure near Hiroshima in Japan and formally turned over to us in September this year. Starlite Pioneer is the first brand-new, all-steel roll-on, roll-off (RoRo) vessel designed specifically for Philippine waters. 

Let me point out that it was in Kure that the legendary Japanese battleship, the Yamato, that saw action in decisive naval battles in the Pacific during the Second World War, was built. 

Starlite Pioneer is definitely a class above the 70 or so RoRos now operating in the Philippines that were mostly bought from Japan.

ST: What makes Starlite Pioneer different? 

AC: Japan’s shipping laws stipulate that after 20 years, maritime vessels including RoRos should be decommissioned or sold abroad because their seaworthiness can no longer be assured.  But all these years, Philippine shipowners had been buying old, decommissioned RoRos designed only for Japan’s calm inland seas.

While RoRos are the main mode of transporting people and cargo from one island to the other and are the backbone of our inter-island trade and commerce, we cannot ensure passenger safety because of our aging fleet. We need to develop our RoRos to connect our islands and thus, develop inter-island economies using safe, reliable and efficient ROROS.

ST: You talked about elevating the passenger experience. What does this mean?

AC: We want to bridge the gap between passengers’ needs and the services being offered by current industry players. We offer service class options, just like airlines.  In first-class, you travel in style inside an air-conditioned cabin, complete with luxurious reclining seats with armrest. In business class, you can sit back and relax in air-conditioned quarters equipped with self-closing semi-automatic doors. Budget travellers can choose economy class where they also enjoy world-class safety features.  

I believe that better facilities and services will positively influence one’s behavior.  I believe that a person can think better and will be inspired to do good.

ST: What are the amenities in Starlite Pioneer?

AC: Apart from the usual amenities in a typical RoRo, we have an elevator for handicapped passengers, a room with beds for passengers with medical conditions, a room for breastfeeding mothers, and a playpen for kids.  Aside from these, we have a helipad for emergency medical evacuation. We have also installed CCTV cameras in strategic locations for heightened security. 

ST: What are the technical specifications and capacity of the vessel as well as its main safety features?

AC: Starlight Pioneer has an overall length of 66.80 meters and gross tonnage of 2,682 metric tons. It can carry a total of 749 passengers: 112 in business class, 325 in first-class, and 312 in economy class.  It can also accommodate 21 passenger buses.     

We take pride in the advanced safety system of this vessel. Starlite Pioneer is equipped with the AIS Transponder which is an automatic tracking system for identifying and locating nearby vessels. We also have a GPS navigator with video plotter that accurately plot the vessel’s location and path. The Navtex receiver delivers navigational and meteorological weather warnings and forecasts to the vessel. The Twin Screw Propulsion and Bow Thruster enhances the maneuverability of the vessel, while the BNWAS sounds an alarm when the watch officer on the bridge falls asleep, becomes incapacitated or is absent for too long.

ST: How will Starlite help uplift the domestic shipping industry to world-class standards?

AC: Starlite Ferries’ fleet of RoRo vessels will all adhere to international standards. Each stage of the marine vessels’ development – from design to planning to production – has been meticulously crafted by some of the world’s best marine designers and engineers to create a world-class open water, seagoing vessels.

We are putting emphasis on customized design. Unlike the existing second-hand ships plying Philippine seas, our fleet of seven brand-new vessels has been specifically designed to navigate our open sea routes and seasonal rough waters.

ST: What prompted you to jumpstart the modernization of the shipping industry?

AC: Because of our aging fleet, we have had so many maritime accidents and that’s why we have earned the dubious distinction as the maritime accident capital of the world. It’s not surprising therefore that the US, United Kingdom and Australia, among others, have issued travel advisories warning their citizens not to ride our inter island vessels due to safety concerns.. 

Many of our RoRo vessels are substandard, ill-maintained, and very old with an average age in excess of 30 years.  Filipino ship owners also tend to employ the dangerous practice of adding another deck to their second-hand RoRos to add more passenger capacity and thus earn more money.   

Since most of our RoRos are old, we must modernize our fleet and replace existing them over a reasonable  period of time, as it is simply uneconomical  to repair them to make them compliant  with international maritime standards. 

ST: How important is classification of your ships by Nippon Kaiji Kyokai?

AC: Nippon Kaiji Kyokai or Class NK is an international non-profit organization that provides certification and classification services to 20 percent of the world’s fleet. It employs stringent processes in assessing every aspect of a ship’s classification – from vessel and machinery plans, ship construction, to ship registration, to materials and equipment, to ship operations and safety and security systems. They not only ensure marine safety but also protection of the marine environment.  

ST: What do you think would be the over-all impact of fleet modernization as a whole?

AC: I would like to think that Starlite Pioneer is a game changer in the industry. With seven other brand-new, highly modern ships due for completion, Starlite Ferries will definitely emerge as a leader in the Philippine shipping industry in the years ahead.  We are elevating the standard of doing things in our company.  It will change how our people think, work and manage.  Hopefully, this will inspire other operators to follow suit that would redound to the benefit of the people, industry and country.
I see at least four positive outcomes as a result of our modernization efforts. 

One, it will boost our economic growth. Brand-new Japanese vessels are very reliable. This means faster, safer and more cost-efficient means of transporting people and goods, which translates to more robust inter-island trade and commerce. 

Two, it will enhance travel and tourism. As the country is composed of more than 7,000 islands, new RoRo vessels will facilitate easier and faster trips to various tourist destinations. The modernization of our maritime transport system will also lead to the lifting of international travel advisories to the Philippines and encourage both local and foreign tourists to explore the country.   

Three, it will protect the marine environment. The new and modern RoRo vessels are highly efficient, as they consume 20 percent less fuel and oil than old ones and thus will also lessen pollution of the marine environment. 

And four, it will underscore our commitment to passenger safety and welfare. Inter-island shipping suffers from a very bad reputation because of frequent accidents involving RoRos and other vessels. But I believe the introduction of new passenger vessels with adequate safety features will put an end to accidents that lead to loss of lives and enhance passengers’ overall welfare.


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