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Making Sense of Passenger Vessel Data

Monday, May 6, 2013

Making Sense of Passenger Vessel Data

by Matthew Chambers


The absence of legal definitions to describe waterborne passenger vessels, such as cruise ships and ferries, may pose a challenge for researchers attempting to collect, sort, and analyze passenger data. A variety of definitions are used to describe waterborne passenger vessels and the port and terminal infrastructures that support them (see table 1). Lacking common definitions, identical terminology may cause confusion, particularly when the data are linked to a Federal regulatory or statistical program. For instance, across-the-board definitions that would define a cruise ship by tonnage, passengers, accommodations, and route do not exist.1

This report characterizes identical or similar terminology that may have different meanings to different users or yield different results for researchers. Further, this report briefly describes the two leading types of passenger vessels and their unique capabilities. In addition, it presents distinct challenges faced by the supporting port and terminal infrastructure unique to each vessel type.

Identical Terminology May Have Different Meanings or Yield Different Results

Several legal definitions or regulations describe ferry and passenger vessels as well as their subtypes (see table 1). For example, in describing passenger vessels, the Federal Maritime Commission specifies a minimum number of berths, whereas the U.S. Coast Guard specifies a minimum number of passengers. In this case, one definition may be more or less inclusive when compared to the other.

Although all passenger vessels are designed and specifically fitted to carry passengers,2 differences ranging from the subtle to the obvious exist not only among types of passenger vessels but among their operational capabilities and physical descriptions. Unless it is fully differentiated, data compatibility and the subsequent analysis of data obtained from disparate sources may be misclassified.

Types of Passenger Vessels

Operators choose the type of passenger vessel for a particular route by considering such factors as economics, itinerary, passenger counts, route, and marine environment (e.g., protected v. open waters3). To match changing needs or current weather conditions, a cruise line or ferry operator may deploy vessels with different operational capability and passenger capacities. For example, until recently, Washington State Ferries deployed small 250-passenger-only ferries, such as the Kalama, and large Jumbo Mark II-class 2,500-passenger/vehicle ferries, such as the Tacoma on its many routes (see figure 1).4 The Kalama and Tacoma are both ferries, yet they have quite different capabilities and passenger capacities.


According to the National Census of Ferry Operators 2008, in 2007 a typical ferry plying U.S. waters had a median passenger capacity of 149. However, individual ferry capacities ranged from 2 to the nearly 6,000 passengers carried by the Andrew J. Barberi, which serves as a Staten Island Ferry in New York, NY. In 2007, ferry operators across the country maintained an active fleet of almost 700 vessels, transporting an estimated 106 million passengers.5 In turn, onboard amenities range from barebones to abundant. Depending on the factors such as trip duration, a vessel may offer passengers a wide range of amenities. For instance, some larger ferries may have a few passenger berths or stateroom accommodations, limited food service, or even arcades and gift shops.6

Cruise Ships

Cruise ships averaged 2,169 passengers per vessel in 2009, with capacities ranging from 100 passengers to the nearly 6,000-passenger capacity of the recently launched Oasis of the Seas, which sails from its home Port Everglades, FL. In 2009, the 17 major cruise lines deployed approximately 109 cruise ships in the United States, carrying about 9.8 million passengers.7

Challenges Faced by Port and Terminal Infrastructure

Cruise ships typically provide stateroom accommodations, onboard dining, and entertainment and are physically larger than ferries. Terminals that serve cruise ships embark and disembark large numbers of passengers and their luggage, quickly moving them through customs, ticketing, and passenger screening. Cruise ship terminals may provide shore-side eateries, shopping, travel services, and vending.

As a result, cruise ships place a greater demand on passenger terminals and port infrastructure than do ferries. Both the Oasis of the Seas, the world’s largest cruise ship, and the ferry Andrew J. Barberi can each carry upwards of 6,000 passengers, but the newly expanded Terminal 18, which serves the Oasis of the Seas and her sister ship, occupies 240,000 square feet—about 5 ½ acres.8 Terminal 18 is 1 of 12 passenger terminals at Port Everglades (see figure 2). In contrast, the Battery Park Ferry Terminal serving the Andrew J. Barberi covers 22,000 square feet—about ½ acre.9

Cruise ships may also have unique environmental or operational requirements. For example, the Port of Los Angeles offers alternative marine power (also known as cold-ironing)10 at its World Cruise Center in order to curb vessel emissions (see figure 3).11

Ferry v. Cruise Boardings

The annual number of ferry passengers exceeds the number of cruise passengers by almost 10 to 1. According to the National Census of Ferry Operators 2008, the number of ferry passengers dipped slightly from 108 million in 2005 to 106 million passengers in 2007. The number of cruise passengers increased by about half a million, from 9.8 million to 10.3 million, during the same period (see figure 4).

Seasonality affects cruise and ferry operations differently. For example, in Seattle, WA, the majority of ferry services operate year round; whereas cruise ships depart Seattle almost exclusively in the warm summer months. (2nd and 3rd quarters—see figure 5).

Fully understanding the difference in the industry standards and legal definitions, particularly when they are linked to regulatory or statistical programs, will help improve data and information quality. Furthermore, this knowledge will help clarify understanding of the entire transportation system and how it works. This understanding, in turn, will help facilitate data comparability by helping data users see how and why the terms are used by Federal agencies as well as informed decision-making.

1 U.S. Environment Protection Agency, Cruise Ship White Paper (August 2000), available at as of February 2011.

2 American Bureau of Shipping, Guide for Building and Classing: Passenger Vessels (November 2001), available at as of February 2011.

3 Protected waters may include bays, lakes, rivers, and other sheltered bodies of water.

4 Washington State Department of Transportation, Washington State Ferries Vessel by Class, available at as of February 2011.

5 U.S. Department of Transportation, Research and Innovative Technology Administration, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 2008 National Census of Ferry Operators, available at of March 2011.

6 Cape May-Lewes Ferry, Meet Our Fleet, available at as of February 2011.

7 U.S. Department of Transportation, Maritime Administration, North America Cruise Summary Data, available at as of February 2011.

8 Port Everglades, Port Everglades Builds World’s Largest Cruise Terminal for World’s Largest Ships (March 2009), available at as of February 2011.

9 The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, New State-of-the-Art Cruise Terminal to Open in Battery Park (Mar. 18, 2009), available at as of February 2011.

10 Alternative Maritime Power (or Cold Ironing) provides electricity from shore to a docked vessel, thus allowing the vessel to run onboard systems without running its engines.

11 Port of Los Angeles, Port of Los Angeles ‘Plugs In’ Three Different Cruise Lines to Shore-Side Electrical Power, available at as of March 2011.

About this Report

Matthew Chambers, a Senior Transportation Specialist, in the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) prepared this fact sheet. Dominic Menegus, a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Analyst, provided special assistance creating the maps. Special thanks to Chip Moore, the RITA Editor, for his assistance. BTS is a component of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA).

For questions about this fact sheet or other BTS reports, call 1-800-853-1351, e-mail, or visit

Maritime-Related BTS Data Products

For the latest Maritime-related BTS data products, please visit the BTS Maritime Program website at

Related data on the BTS Maritime Program website:

  • National Census of Ferry Operators
  • Intermodal Passenger Connectivity Database

Water Passenger Transportation-related BTS Publications:

  • Highlights of the 2008 National Census of Ferry Operators (2011)
  • Ocean Passenger Vessels: Migrating South for the Winter (2010)
  • Ocean Passenger Terminals: Serving Larger Vessels Closer to Home and Central Transit Connections (2010)
  • Making Connections: Intermodal Links Between Regular route Passenger Ferries and Other Passenger Transportation Modes (2009)
  • Highlights of the 2006 National Census of Ferry Operators (2008)
  • Multiple Imputation of Missing Passenger Boarding Data in the National Census of Ferry Operators (2006)