Who docks bay ships?

Threat to port: Power play by bay pilots may raise prices at port and drive out shipping lines.

March 30, 2000

THE LAST THING the port of Baltimore needs is legislation that effectively raises the price of doing business on the city's waterfront.

Yet that is what the state Senate has achieved in a bill that would create a costly monopoly for the people who dock and steer ships that call on Baltimore.

At the moment, there are two kinds of maritime pilots serving the port: Bay pilots, who bring the big cargo ships up the Chesapeake as far as the Francis Scott Key Bridge, and docking pilots, who work for tugboat firms and guide these mammoth vessels until they are safely berthed.

The bay pilots have enormous political muscle that has helped its members earn close to $200,000 a year for part-time work. Their union wants to expand its reach to include the docking pilots, who earn considerably less for far longer hours.

What alarms port officials is the bay pilots' constant demands for higher pay. In the past nine years, their rates have soared 64 percent; in the past four years alone, the increase has been 21.5 percent. Pilot rates in arch-rival Norfolk, however, haven't budged during the last four years.

Keeping the port of Baltimore competitive must be a major concern for state lawmakers. The Senate-passed bill would harm that effort. It would effectively give the bay pilots control of the docking pilot functions. One major shipping line, fearing large, annual rate hikes, has already said it would leave Baltimore if that occurs.

House delegates should approve a bill that gives the state licensing power over the docking pilots but keeps the two pilot groups separate.

Otherwise, Baltimore would face a monopoly that could cost the port lucrative maritime business. Competition among tugboat operators and their docking pilots has worked. Let's not give shipping lines another reason to leave the port of Baltimore.

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