Businesses decry losses as hydrofoil ban continues

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Passengers board a Vina Express hydrofoil / PHOTO COURTESY OF TBKTSG
Three businesses operating high-speed hydrofoils between Ho Chi Minh City and the southern beach town of Vung Tau say they have been “worn out” by an indefinite ban on their boats’ operation.
The companies made their complaint during a press conference in the city on Friday, more than four months after the municipal authorities suspended hydrofoil services following a fire that claimed a boat, but caused no deaths or injuries.
Bui Cong Trung, chairman of Vina Express, said he and his fellow hydrofoil operators have fixed all of the technical faults identified by inspectors from the HCMC People’s Committee and the Ministry of Transport, but for some reason, they haven't been allowed to resume service.
Vina Express’s activities have almost come to a halt, but every month it continues to pay nearly VND500 million (US$23,730) in salaries to its employees, Trung said.
Trinh Thanh Chuong, director general of Greenlines Joint-stock Company, claimed that his company has had to borrow money to pay its staff.
According to Tran Quoc Hieu, vice director of Quang Hung Transport Co. Ltd. (the operator of Petro Express boats) since the HCMC People’s Committee halted hydrofoil services, his company has lost some VND4-4.5 billion ($190,000-213,500) a month in income.
He said that nearly 200 employees from all three firms have had nothing to do recently, but they don't dare sack them for fear that they will end up short-handed when they are allowed to resume their services.
At the same time, they don't know when that will be Hieu said, adding that they are still under scrutiny from numerous agencies, some of which send four or five inspection teams to their facilities a week.
Last month the businesses sent a joint-letter to the Prime Minister, pleading with him to cancel the suspension. Transport Minister Dinh La Thang responded by asking the government to continue the ban indefinitely.
The minister argued that the hydrofoils were old, worn out and poorly maintained, and that even if recent repairs were made, they remain considerably unreliable.
He said the boats pose a threat to maritime safety, particularly given the risk of electrical and engine fires, so they need to be totally replaced.
Hieu, of Quang Hung, countered that even though his company bought used boats from overseas, it has spent billions on maintaining them every year, Thoi bao Kinh te Sai Gon (Saigon Times) reported.
He claimed that a new pair of engines cost his company at least VND10 billion ($474,600).
Representatives from Vina Express said they'd spent nearly VND7 billion ($332,200) upgrading and maintaining their fleet, adding that the cost climbed to VND12 billion ($569,500) last year.
Asked why the companies did not buy new boats, Hieu said a new hydrofoil costs tens of billions of dong and they cannot increase fares now to recoup the investment, given rising competition from bus services.
He said with the newly-opened the HCMC-Long Thanh-Dau Giay expressway, bus travel time to Vung Tau is almost the same as a hydrofoil trip, about 90 minutes.
Moreover, the bus fare is already cheaper than the hydrofoil fare, so “no businesses dare invest in new boats at the moment,” Hieu said.
Trung also said if they buy new boats and keep fares at VND200,000-250,000 ($9.5-11.8), they will suffer losses for at least seven or eight years.
According to the Ministry of Transport, at first 22 boats were in service on the route between HCMC and Vung Tau, but at the time of the suspension, only 10 were operational because others had suffered irreparable wear and tear.
Eight of the operational boats are 20 years old, while two others are 18 and 19.
Soon after it began operating in 1993, the high-speed boat service had become a quick, popular alternative to bus travel for people commuting between HCMC and Vung Tau.
The boats made 19-26 trips every day, carrying nearly 800,000 passengers per year, before the suspension order.
The quality of service, however, came under fire from the press following a long string of breakdowns and mishaps.
In the latest accident that prompted HCMC’s authorities to suspend the service, a boat caught fire on its way to Vung Tau on January 20.
Ninety-two passengers, including 37 foreigners, jumped into the waters around the boat to escape the flames. All survived without injury thanks to the captain who piloted the vessel into the shallows before it burned to cinders.

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