Suggested changes to ferry reservations | Opinion

We’ve been hearing mixed reviews on the new ferry reservation system.

Some love the convenience of ensuring a spot on the ferries and say that travel is being spread out more evenly. Others are seeing a downturn in summer business from those unable to get a reservation.

One bed and breakfast owner told us, “We’ve had six calls from visitors who couldn’t get a reservation. We had a cancellation over Memorial Day weekend, and we’ve spent over an hour on the phone with about five guests helping them with the online system.”  Another hotel owner said, “This crazy tiered system isn’t anywhere else in the world.” A retail store on Lopez Island is reporting the worst month in sales in 17 years.

In response to concerns from the business community, the Orcas Island Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors crafted a letter to the Washington State Ferries and state elected officials. Full disclosure: the publisher of this newspaper is vice president of the chamber board.

Below is a copy of the letter that we feel outlines the positives and negatives of the new system. We hope WSF listens to these suggestions and makes revisions soon.

Islanders are adapting to the reservation system, and we are hearing many good reports, in particular the elimination of long wait times and reduction of stress associated with uncertainty about getting on a ferry. Our neighbors are learning to navigate the reservation process with some ease.

We are in support of the system, but Orcas Island is in a unique position with its intensifying need for more capacity, and both locals and visitors are finding the current system challenging in some ways. There is a real concern if revisions do not happen quickly, rather than waiting until the end of the season. Our businesses will be noticeably impacted this year; it is the summer months that carry us through the shoulder and off-seasons. Lodging establishments are hearing repeated worry from travelers about getting here, and are anxious that there will be no spontaneous travel business to fill rooms that are still available through the summer.

As you work to hone the system, the Board of Directors of the Orcas Island Chamber of Commerce has specific feedback based on the experiences of our members, and comments made by potential visitors. Here are a few common issues.

1. Islanders with last minute urgencies (non-medical) to get to the mainland are often unable to secure a much needed reservation, and ferry workers are discouraging stand-by traffic.

2. Lodging members say guests are either canceling or requesting flexibility in lodging cancellation policies because they often are not assured of getting a reservation until close to the time of travel. Even when they go online at 7 a.m. during one of the tier releases they are often unable to get a reservation. And even when a reservation to the island is successful, sometimes it is not possible to get an advance reservation to leave.

3. The current tiered system is complicated and difficult for first-time and occasional users.

4. People are “gaming the system” – securing multiple reservations or reservations for times they do not intend to travel in order to assure they have something in place as they wait to see if they can get the actual time desired when another tier is released. Some are even selling reservations for highly sought-after times.

5. Travelers are being discouraged from lining up for stand-by, even though there are frequently more stand-by spaces available than ferry workers know (due to no-shows and last minute cancellations) and ferries are then running at less than maximum capacity. The last report indicated that 29 percent of reservations were cancelled or no-shows the day of travel.

6. People who arrive early and could get on an earlier sailing than their designated reservation have to sacrifice their reservation in order to line up for stand-by.

We suggest the following.

1. More drive-up spaces available for spontaneous travel and non-medical urgencies.

2. More spaces available up front (first tier) so that visitors can plan ahead with assurance they can get here.

3. A two-tiered system would be simpler, with more spaces available initially, spaces available a week or two prior to travel, and more spaces than currently available for stand-by. Our board has discussed the benefits of a 40 – 30 – 30 system.

4. Stiffer penalties for no-shows by charging the full fee up front. This would naturally result in far fewer people making bogus reservations. Also, consider allowing just one round trip reservation per day per individual.

5. Ferry workers need flexibility in filling boats with more stand-by customers.

6. Allow for flexibility in getting on an earlier boat if there is room without sacrificing one’s reservation.

Thank you for your efforts and we are well aware that significant thought and resources have gone into development of the new reservation system. We appreciate the extensive efforts you have made to incorporate open dialogue and education of our local population into the process.