NorthLink passenger ships Hjaltland and Hrossey are having a £1 million makeover to provide “gastro-pub” food, luxury recliners and a room of video console games.
The work by new operators Serco is taking place while the ships remain in operation.
Managing director Stuart Garrett apologised this week for the Hjaltland being “in a state of demolition” onboard while work is done “on the run”. Her sister ship Hrossey is nearer to completion and both should be fully modified before the end of next month.
The new reclining seats from Norway have personal lighting and USB connections. They are designed to create a sort of “sleep pod” experience, which Mr Garrett likened to that of modern transatlantic airplane seats.
The old unloved recliners are being moved to other parts of the ship, including along either side of the large bar room and in the area next to the shop.
A premium lounge is being created midships in place of the a la carte restaurant. It will be open to passengers with premium cabin tickets or anyone who buys a ticket to use it. Inside will be free newspapers, magazines, snacks and drinks like tea and coffee.
Food for all passengers can be ordered from a new single ship’s menu which Mr Garrett likened to the kind of “gastro-pub” fare on offer in contemporary chain restaurants like Nando’s and Giraffe.
For travellers with no cabin there is the welcome return of public showers, which used to be available on the P&O ships before NorthLink arrived with new ships in 2002.
Serco is trying to improve the wi-fi service to a standard that would allow videos to be streamed to passengers on demand. Although the cinema was under threat it is now being kept due to requests from parents who find it a good way of occupying their children.
The room with the one-arm bandit machines is being converted into a snug-style extension to the bar where sports and other programmes will be shown on a giant screen. The arcade gaming room is being converted to hold Xbox and PlayStation consoles where players will be able to compete against each other.
The toddlers’ play area is also being remodelled.
Serco has now been operating the passenger and freight contract for four-and-a-half months and seems to have gained approval from most Shetland users. Shetland External Transport Forum chairman Allan Wishart said on Wednesday there appeared to be “general satisfaction” with the changes since July.
Speaking to The Shetland Times after a meeting of the forum, Mr Garrett said the success was a tribute to the work of his colleagues and a “very experienced workforce”.
“I’m very pleased it has been business as usual.”
Many of Serco NorthLink’s workers are less pleased with their new employer. The threat of strike action stopping sailings during late December and January still hangs over the Orkney and Shetland service.
The RMT union is balloting members over the loss of up to 36 jobs as Serco seeks to introduce a more flexible crewing system to cut costs. Instead of carrying a full complement of crew members the company wants to be able to “down-man” during quiet times when fewer passengers are travelling. Mr Garrett said most other ferry companies constantly adjust their crewing depending on projected passenger levels.
The RMT has accused Serco of threatening sackings and bringing in casualisation to skilled marine jobs.
Mr Garrett said he was confident enough existing workers would take up the offer of voluntary redundancy to enable Serco to cut the permanent workforce to the size it wants.
Talks are still taking place with the RMT and the maritime professionals’ union Nautilus to try to avert any stoppage. Mr Garrett hoped they would yet prove “fruitful” but said he would have to do what he could to keep the ships running if industrial action went ahead.
Serco is to launch a new marketing campaign in January in an attempt to boost its custom. Its new logo, seen by some in Shetland, was said by Andy Steven of Promote Shetland to be “bold, brave and a little bit controversial”.
There is also speculation that Serco will change the livery of the fleet.
Discussing Serco’s service so far, local industry representatives on the transport forum said they were happy with progress and pleased with the level of consultation. But it remained to be seen how the freight service copes when bad weather affects sailings and one of the two freighters is away being serviced.
Lerwick Port Authority deputy chief executive Victor Sandison said any breaks in service could hit the booming trade in providing services to oil ships calling at Lerwick. If oil-related cargoes were not able to get through on time it could lead to loss of some of that business, he warned.