Panama aims for automation as flag launches systems overhaul

Panama reaches out for the dream of all ship registers, a paperless communications and accounting system that will save everyone time and money

AUTOMATION: that has become the unquestionable password for the operation of the world’s largest ship register.

Panama made it plain at the recent Posidonia gathering that the register is being overhauled to offer a better service to its users.

The process which will turn around the register will include the issuing of new biometric seafarer identity books and the complete connection online in real time between the register and its network of consulates and users.

Such is the critical importance of this change that Panama’s vice-president Ruben Arosemena, who also holds the post of administrator of the Maritime Authority, joined the director-general of the merchant marine, Fernando Solórzano, and the ambassador and consul of Panama in Greece, Antonio Taquis, at the Piraeus event to underline the modernisation process. The goal is to achieve a paperless system.

Some frequently asked questions are bound to crop up, so here are the answers.

Who will be in charge of the automation of the register?

The United Nations Development Programme prepared the call for tenders for the automation and selected three of its own experts, who worked independently to examine the offers.

The UN facility is known for its transparency, neutrality and efficiency. Based on the evaluation of both technical and financial proposals, Spanish company Indra has been awarded the contract to modernise the infrastructure and computerise the processes of the Panama Maritime Authority.

Indra was judged ahead of the other bidders on technical evaluation and lowest cost, obtaining 83.67 points out of a possible 100. Its proposal involved a $13.4m spend over a five-year period.

Who is Indra?

Although a newcomer to the maritime sector, the Spanish company is accomplished in other spheres, notably the aviation sector.

With a presence in more than 50 countries Indra’s high technology projects include air traffic control systems (a third of the world’s air traffic control is developed by the company), aircraft simulators, electronic voting, air defence networks, ticketing and traffic control on motorways. It has a division specialising in homeland security, which has developed border surveillance systems, identity systems incorporating biometrics and document control system on high security documents.

The company has participated in the development of the combat plane Eurofighter 2000, and is a preferred supplier of the US Navy. It has been involved in development of the electronic ID card for Spain, as well as Spanish social security cards.

What will the Panama project involve?

The project includes developing software services, hardware supply, the issuing of secure certificates and the installation and operation of a 24/7 call centre.

New seafarers’ books or marine passports will include the latest security technologies, including biometric information, to comply with the strictest security rules.

All 77 Panamanian consulates worldwide, as well as the four regional centres (Panama City, Manila, New York and London) will be connected into this system to improve the efficiency and speed up the processes that are carried out by the maritime authority. This should result in better control of the Panamanian fleet, unifying information, improving tax collection and promotion of investment in this sector.

What will be the impact of the modernisation of the register on the fleet flying the Panamanian flag?

For many years all the users worldwide relying on the consulates always had to bear the time difference between their local base and Panama.

While consulates have a large capacity for decision-taking within the framework and under instructions of the register and can speed up processes by using certain legal and authorised shortcuts, Panama always has the final decision and authorisation.

The new system will of course still rely on the final word from Panama, but routine matters and exchange of information will be carried out in a more modern way and will, in my opinion, reduce the waiting time by at least 80%.

How will the user benefit?

As an example, let us cite the annual taxes collected from every ship every year. In the past, consulates would rely on the printed statement of accounts received by mail/courier/fax, but in few cases within the long and complicated shipowning global structure, leaving it open to question whether somewhere, someone has already paid.

At the end of the month, if a double payment were to be detected, a long procedure over the credit would be initiated, deciding how it would be reported and how to collect the original receipts with the duplicate payment, which might well have been on board the vessel on the other side of the world. In future, the consulates will have on their screens details of the outstanding amounts in real time; meaning that if someone somewhere has paid, this will be automatically reflected and entered in the system, so every penny, or cent in this case, will be registered immediately. There will be no risk of double payment. The user can immediately be informed of the current amount payable.

Once the payment is collected and processed, instead of sending confirmation details to Panama via fax or email and waiting for an operator to enter the payment into the system, the system will immediately reflect the status of payment, how much, where and for what. This will save so much time and will expedite matters for everyone dealing with that particular ship.

The new system foresees giving additional facilities to the users, so the shipowners, lawyers or shipmanagers will have access to certain ‘public domain’ information online. This means that the working hours of a consulate, or a country’s national holiday, would not cause delay in obtaining the information.

The issuing of the documents will be in a secured manner via printer, instead of the traditional typewriter, and this will help lead to a complete network of interrelated functions and the fusion of databases, producing one state of the art database.

How will the register handle the transition?

Obviously, alongside benefit to the user and the consulates, the register itself will be turned around completely. Analysts, auditors and every single officer will have the way they do things completely modernised and simplified. The register and their officers will have a wealth of knowledge to produce financial statements, statistics and accounts, practically on a daily basis, and with the minimal effort: the ultimate desire for any register.

A complete system of training through e-learning is planned for all the personnel of the register, with the regional Offices and the consulates working together with a support of a call centre round the clock that will resolve any technical matter or difficulty. The Panamanian fleet, the largest in the world, has over 6,000 ships. The second and third registers, Liberia and Bahamas, have fewer than 2,000 vessels each on their books.

Despite some crises in its 80 years of existence, the efficiency, dedication and knowledge accumulated in the Panamanians working in the register has enabled the flag to fly successfully, certainly for over a decade since reaching the top of the list.

As to the secret of its staying power, undoubtedly we can name the flexibility and the understanding of the business, together with the dedication of the Panamanian maritime lawyers.

Most flags have a fraction of the number enrolled with Panama, and there are Panamanian consulates dealing in their files with thousand of ships.

This puts a great bonus on the Panamanian consulates, and they know they must offer quality service and personal contact to the local shipowner, as well as to managers, lawyers and banks.

How much the registry collects every year and how is its expenditure?

In 2005 the Panama Maritime Authority collected through the Merchant Marine Directorate $56.7m for services to ships such as new registrations, annual tax, and through the Seafarers Directorate a further $11.8m for certifications and the issue of seafarers’ documents.

Published figures show that during the year 2004 the cost to Panama to maintain annually the network of consulate and regional offices was in excess of $8m, but their contribution to the national treasury is quite considerable and including their important help in lightening the workload of the registry.

Panama is the largest single contributor in the IMO, representing approximately the 20% of the total to the IMO’s budget. These contributions are calculated in relation to the total tonnage registered by each of the country members of the IMO.

What will be the first task to be tackled in the modernisation process?

First job for the Panamanian administration and Indra is complete automation in the Directorate General of Seafarers.

Indra’s wide experience in the issue of identity documents, notably passports in Portugal and electronic identity cards in Spain, places it in an ideal position to renew the identity books of more than 300,000 seafarers and officers as from next year.

The new certificates will include the capture by digital technology of the fingertip, photo and signature. This should minimise the malpractices and irregularities reported in the past, as well as the time taken to issue certificates.

Appropriately, the directorates of Merchant Marine and of Seafarers are in the process of moving to a new building near the headquarters of the Panamanian Maritime Administration. Side by side with the modernisation of the oldest open registry, we have recently seen the creation of the International Maritime University of Panama, and on October 22 the referendum for the expansion of the Panama Canal goes ahead, giving renewed limelight to Panama: a marvellous opportunity for the country to shine and show its promise to the maritime industry worldwide.


© 2006 Maria Dixon - ISM Shipping Solutions Ltd.