“We’ll still be supporting the Solent for many years to come,” says Red Funnel CEO Fran Collins
Red Funnel has served Britain’s Isle of Wight for nearly 160 years and it is fair to say the Covid-19 pandemic has been one of the, if not the, largest challenges faced by the business in recent years. Undaunted, it has remained in operation to provide a vital lifeline ferry service between the island and mainland UK, continuously ensuring that its travel guidance reflects the most current UK Government recommendations and taking all steps to minimise the spread of the infection.
CEO Fran Collins says that as soon as the true scale of Covid-19 became apparent, Red Funnel worked with the Isle of Wight Council and other operators to identify a minimum island lifeline service requirement and reduced its services to support this. “At the peak of lockdown car travel was down to just 5 per cent of normal levels and foot passengers at 2 per cent with only essential workers and medical travel being permitted,” she says. “Freight was also severely affected.”
The reduction in services ensured Red Funnel would have staff available to crew vessels and run operations in the event of high levels of sickness, while ensuring costs were kept to a minimum. “One of the toughest decisions we had to take was to temporarily suspend our Hi-Speed Red Jet foot passenger service which operates between West Cowes and Southampton,” says Collins. “We kept this going as long as we possibly could, but ultimately, with only a handful of passengers using the service and some sailings operating empty, we had to suspend it.
“Happily, we resumed a revised timetable on this service at the end of June, and although numbers remain very low, we are optimistic that there will be an increase in demand as restrictions continue to be relaxed.”
Collins says the level of engagement from government was extraordinary, unexpected and much appreciated. “We had plenty of engagement with the Department for Transport and weekly industry calls with Minister Kelly Tolhurst,” she says. “Having worked with government to secure a relaxation of competition regulation to enable the provision of a joint lifeline timetable, we also received a proportion of the emergency grant package put together to support lifeline services on the Isle of Wight and the Isle of Scilly. However, while very welcome, this did not cover the costs of maintaining the service and we still face ongoing challenges as we move into the next stage of the pandemic.”
Outwardly, Red Funnel adapted quickly to the pandemic, undertaking many changes. “Notable customer-facing measures we took included the reduction of onboard passenger capacity to help enable social distancing,” says Collins. “We also offered ‘stay in vehicle’ crossings in support of shielding customers, something Red Funnel led the way in developing with the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Further, we adopted a policy for all customer-facing staff to wear face coverings and undergo temperature testing prior to the start of shifts.”
It is an effort that helped Red Funnel become the world’s first ferry operator to receive the DNV GL Covid-19 Statement of Compliance.
The future outlook is difficult to predict but Red Funnel has seen a reasonable increase in bookings since the government allowed the reopening of tourism. “It’s still a long way from what we would normally expect; consumer behaviours and travel patterns have changed enormously and at the moment it is hard to tell if these will be permanent shifts or if we’re going to see movement back to previous patterns as we readjust,” says Collins.“One thing is clear for us at Red Funnel though – since our inception in 1861, we’ve continuously evolved our business to support the Isle of Wight throughout numerous world events, and this will be no different. We’ll still be supporting the Solent for many years to come.”
This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2020 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.
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