State pilots who direct mammoth ships through Tampa Bay traditionally command handsome six-figure salaries. This year's projected annual take per pilot: $262,392.
But that's down sharply from 2006, so now pilots are asking state regulators to raise the rates they charge to shippers by 27 percent over the next three years.
Tampa port officials, shipping companies and businesses that rely on the sea trade are abuzz over the request. The proposal comes as cargo shippers and cruise lines struggle with high fuel prices and fallout from the weak U.S. economy.
Pilot rates already are 90 to 150 percent higher in Tampa Bay than any other Florida port where Carnival Cruise Lines operates, said Carnival spokesman Tim Gallagher. If the proposed increase passes, Carnival will reconsider keeping two ships in Tampa, he said.
"We'd have to take a very hard look at our operations in Tampa and see if there is a less expensive opportunity not only in Florida but at other home ports,'' said Gallagher. Carnival carried three-quarters of the port's 782,000 cruise passengers for the year ending Sept. 30. The company pays $1.6-million annually in local pilot fees.
The rate proposal also complicates talks the port is having with another major cruise line to bring a new ship to Tampa in the fall of 2009, said port director Richard Wainio. "They're also looking at other ports,'' he said. "This is going to make it much more difficult to get it done.''
Pilots say they need higher rates to offset increased costs and a decline in the number of ships calling on ports along Tampa Bay. Their average pay of $336,292 in 2006 is expected to be 28 percent lower this year.
Local pilot rates are the highest in Florida in part because of geography, says Allen Thompson, a retired U.S. Coast Guard captain and executive director of the Tampa Bay Pilots Association. Unlike the short distances into other Florida ports, Tampa Bay's main shipping channel runs 42 miles from Tampa's port to just west of the Sunshine Skyway.
The transit takes as long as seven hours in any weather, day or night. "It is important to keep compensation commensurate with the risk,'' says Thompson.
Tampa Bay pilots work 14 days on, followed by 14 days off. They take what income is left after expenses — office space, staff salaries, running small boats to pick up and drop off pilots — and split it evenly.
If the state-run Pilotage Rate Review Board approves the request later this year, pilot salaries should jump from $262,392 this year to $333,422 by 2011, according to the pilot association's application. A board committee will hold a hearing on the proposal Wednesday at Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel.
Officials from the Port of Tampa, Port Manatee, the Port of Tampa Maritime Industries Association and various businesses will attend. One question opponents will raise: If there are fewer ships to handle, why not increase salaries by reducing the number of pilots?
Wainio doesn't begrudge pilots a pay increase. But not so much and not at a time when companies are searching hard for ways to cut costs.
"Both the timing and the magnitude of this are of great concern to businesses and the community,'' he said.
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.