The U.S.-flag passenger fleet of deep-draft, oceangoing vessels, which underwent a precipitous and prolonged decline beginning in the 1960s and lasting well into the 1990s, is now poised for an upswing. Despite business setbacks resulting from the economic shock of September 11, 2001, legislative and other developments in recent years have sparked a renewed interest in building and operating U.S.-flag passenger ships. Currently, several companies, many of them formed only recently to take advantage of what are perceived to be growing opportunities in the U.S.-flag cruise market, have U.S.-flag passenger ships under construction, on order, or in the planning/design stages. In addition, two U.S.-flag cruise vessels in the control of the U.S. Maritime Administration are being examined by a number of existing and prospective operators for service in the U.S. domestic trades.
U.S. cabotage laws cover both cargo and passenger vessels operating in the U.S. domestic trades. Basically speaking, the movement of merchandise in the domestic, waterborne trades is governed by Section 27 of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (46 U.S.C. 883; 19 CFR 4.80 and 4.80b), popularly known as the “Jones Act,” which requires that only U.S.-built, U.S.-owned, and U.S.-crewed vessels be used to transport merchandise in U.S. domestic trade; while the Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886 (46 U.S.C. 289), when applied in conjunction with particular sections of the Merchant Marine Act, governs the U.S. domestic passenger trades, setting the standards for passenger vessels as the Merchant Marine Act does for cargo vessels. Provisions of U.S. cabotage law also cover mixed-use vessels carrying both cargo and passengers.
Concerning the U.S. domestic passenger trades, the Passenger Vessel Services Act states:
No foreign vessel shall transport passengers between ports or places in the United States, either directly or by way of a foreign port, under a penalty of $200 for each passenger so transported and landed.
There are, however, certain exceptions to the prohibition on the use of foreign vessels to transport passengers in the U.S. domestic trades. For example, the Virgin Islands are exempt from U.S. cabotage laws until declared otherwise by presidential proclamation (46 App. U.S.C. 877). Foreign vessels may transport passengers between Puerto Rico and ports in the United States, provided that there is no eligible U.S. vessel offering such service (46 U.S.C. 289c). There is no violation of U.S. cabotage law in cases where passengers board a non-coastwise qualified vessel at one U.S. port and disembark (at the conclusion of the voyage) at another U.S. port, as long as the vessel makes an intermediate stop at a “distant foreign port” (19 CFR 4.80a).
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency responsible for interpreting U.S. cabotage laws, has ruled that foreign-flag cruise vessels may carry passengers on so-called “cruises to nowhere” (cruises that begin and end at the same U.S. port and do not touch any other port, U.S. or foreign) without violating the Passenger Vessel Services Act, since such voyages do not entail transportation between U.S. ports or places. Taking advantage of this ruling, numerous foreign-flag gaming vessels are operating in the lucrative and expanding U.S. cruise-to-nowhere market.
U.S.-Flagged Passenger Fleet Profile
NCL America (Norwegian Cruise Lines)
NCL America, the U.S. subsidiary of Norwegian Cruise Lines, inaugurated a new era of U.S.-flag cruising when NCL AMERICA began operations in 2004. The 72,000 ton, 2,146 passenger PRIDE OF AMERICA sails the islands of Hawaii on seven-day cruises offering the finest U.S. flag service available. The NCL America fleet generates hundreds of millions in economic activity annually and provides more than 3,000 jobs. In addition to the impressive economic impact are national security benefits as well. The NCL America fleet contributes to the critical pool of qualified U.S. seafarers and provides vital repair and maintenance work for U.S. shipyards, both essential pillars of U.S. sealift capability.
U.S. Ferry Operations
Ferry operations in the United States are conducted in thirty states and three territories providing a wide range of services including trans-national and interstate services with most providing services on routes within a state’s boundaries. Some, like the Alaska Marine Highway provide both intra-state services among various Alaskan ports as well as inter-state carrying overnight passengers from the lower forty eight states. Others provide essential commuter services, seasonal operations and serve tourist routes. Nationally ferry systems carried more than 108 million passengers over more than 618 million passenger miles.
About one half of U.S. ferry services are privately owned and about one third are publicly owned and operated. Most of the remaining services are publicly contracted and privately operated. Approximately seventy seven percent of all services are operated year round.
Ferries provide essential commuter services, reducing traffic and pollution in major metropolitan areas such as New York, Seattle and San Francisco. They have also proven their worth in crisis situations such as the evacuation of people from lower Manhattan on September 1, 2001 and for passengers and crew onboard the U.S. Airways jet which crashed in the Hudson River in early 2009. In those cases, evacuation and rescue operations were conducted by New York Waterways, a privately owned operator in the region