EMPA Position Paper

EMPA Position

Maritime pilots are providing a public service

We, maritime pilots, are proud to provide a public service. Our work is devoted to safety, security and environmental protection, thus enhancing port efficiency. Indeed, liability and safety for sea access to the ports are the most important preconditions of port competitiveness. And that`s exactly what maritime pilots stand for.

Due to the close cooperation between most of the EMPA member associations, we achieved to explain to the European legislators the specific work of maritime pilots. Our role is now well recognized as being providers of a public service.

Unmanned ships

The profession of maritime pilots shows clearly: It`s the human factor that counts. Of course, in the age of digitalization for our work as maritime pilots, IT-techniques and technologies are quite common and useful tools assisting us in conducting our job as safe, environmentally friendly and efficient as possible. Optimizations and improvements have been implemented step-by-step at the bridge, as part of the communication between captain and pilot, in the equipment of the maritime pilots like PPUs, e-navigation and AIS, etc.

But today, we are right at the beginning of a new technological revolution which will change radically our way of living, working and how to deal with each other. This digitalization and automation will affect also the maritime sector. Especially we are talking about ways towards unmanned ships, that means ships without captain and crew.

Old and new market players are looking for new products and services including higher profit rates in the future. And of course, R&D-institutions are looking for new funding possibilities given by the European Commission. Not all analysis, studies and projects are really linked to reality.

For the employees, significant changes will happen both on the working structure and the occupational requirements. No auxiliary crew from third countries anymore, captains predicted to be doing their job in remote control centers onshore. Will this be the future of maritime pilots as well?

It is true: We can't and certainly wouldn’t want to stop the further development of information and communications technology and robotics. But are the expectations in respect to technology realistic? Can ships be automated, even in pilotage areas, or conducted from the shore?

Nevertheless, many questions are to be addressed:

  • Economic considerations. Crewing costs are about 5 to 10 percent of the total costs of running ships. A fully autonomous ship needs a significant higher investment by the ship-owner which may not be compensated by the relatively small savings in crew costs. Therefore, independent of the technical feasibility of unmanned ships, the core question remains whether there is a real business case for ship-owners to shift to unmanned ships.Societal risks. But even under the assumption that the additional costs can be offset by the deletion of crewing costs, risks in terms of safety and security remains. Failure avoidance by human errors onboard might be overcompensated by new technical risks and insufficiencies in remote centers onshore. Against this background we need an answer on the socio-political consequences on employment and vocational training.
  • Piracy. Furthermore, hacker attacks initiated by pirates or terrorists may entail similar risk levels as manned ships in this regard.
  • And last but not least: With regard to the legal framework, many issues and details foremost of IMO regulations (e.g. definitions of "ships", "captain", minimum manning regulation, search & rescue efforts) have to be aligned with the concept of unmanned ships.

As a result, we don't expect a revolution, but a step-by-step introduction of certain new elements, which will improve and optimize the cooperation between captain and pilots.

Whether or not unmanned ships are good for society is finally a question of common interest to the welfare of society at large, and should therefore be decided within political institutions, legislative bodies, regulatory agencies, and European and international organizations through good governance. Therefore, we plead for a broad discussion including all stakeholders that should be ensured by the competent authorities.

Our position is clear: We are prepared to discuss the issue with all other involved stakeholders.

Training and qualification

Maritime pilots are proud of their history and traditions. They cultivate the customs of the sea and ports and are actively involved in the traditional navigation.

Knowledge and experiences must be given to the next generation. What we need is to attract young men and women for our profession by offering an excellent vocational training. In this context we have to identify new ways. The existing access to our profession is based on the offer of shipowners to hire young people for the vocational training. In recent years the readiness of shipowners to deal with vocational training was more and more limited. Therefore, we fear that in the near future the demand of maritime pilots for the so-called second market (port companies, pilot associations, police, emergency control centers, maritime administration) will not be met. Obviously, the previous job access, namely working as a captain on board of ships may no longer be a sustainable way in some countries. Therefore, we should look into additional ways to become a pilot.

English as common language?

In many business sectors of our globalized market economy, the English language is the so-called lingua franca. Sometimes the maritime pilots are also confronted with the question why we don’t always use English as the sole compulsory language.

To be clear: We are not against it. We need to take the consequences into account. Inside our waters we have mixed seagoing traffic consisting of different types of professional and leisure boats navigating at the same time and sharing the same waterways. As a matter of fact, even in the professional maritime sector there are big differences in the ability to speak English. Furthermore, as the pilot is the first point of contact and most probably the first on-scene commander in emergency situations, the communication with the traffic centers onshore and any part of local alarm chains must be kept functioning without any distortions.

In the event of a decision to make the English language compulsory, we definitely need a comprehensive plan of implementation and execution based on an appropriate time scale.


PECs or equivalent mechanisms are applied in most of the EU Member States. In Europe, the criteria for obtaining these certificates are linked to transparent and proportionate specificities taking into account the risks of safety and environmental damage.

Antwerpen, 13 April 2018