New headache for Miami-based Carnival Cruise Lines

Carnival Cruise Lines faced new questions about the reliability of its Fun Ships Thursday as one of its newest and largest vessels suffered a technical glitch while docked that left it stuck in St. Maarten.

The early end to the Carnival Dream’s seven-day sailing, which was scheduled to return to Port Canaveral on Saturday, fell a month after the fire-crippled Carnival Triumph reached land after days at sea. Its arrival — and stories of miserable experiences on board — made international headlines.

On Thursday, a fresh cycle of bad news started for Miami-based Carnival, with many stories referring to the “nightmare” aboard the Carnival Dream. Then late Thursday, CNN reported that the Carnival Legend was having problems that were affecting its speed. The company says an issue with an Azipod propulsion and steering unit is slowing the vessel down, forcing it to skip a stop in Grand Cayman and return — slowly — to Tampa.

An earlier issue with the Canival Elation also got some fresh publicity: Earlier this week, the cruise line said it had “a minor issue with the steering function” of an Azipod unit, which did not affect the speed of the ship. But Carnival said it had asked for a tugboat to accompany the ship last weekend “in the interest of extreme caution” as it set out on a voyage from its home port in New Orleans. That issue had not been widely covered before Friday.

“If it weren’t for Triumph, this just simply would not have received the attention it did,” Mike Driscoll, editor of the weekly trade publication Cruise Week, said Thursday afternoon. “I think that’s the issue confronting Carnival Cruise Lines right now — they’re really under a microscope.”

The malfunction, which happened during a routine test, knocked out elevator and restroom service periodically Wednesday night. The Miami-based cruise operator said everything was working again by 12:30 a.m. and the ship never lost power. The propulsion system was not affected, Carnival said, but the ship stayed in the Caribbean port in order to avoid sailing with 4,363 passengers, 1,370 crew members and no backup generator.

All aboard were safe and comfortable, Carnival said via a statement. The company said it would start flying passengers home to Orlando or their final destination Friday morning on scheduled and chartered flights. Late Thursday, the company said singer Jon Secada would give a surprise performance for the guests. Once all the customers are off the ship, the Dream will sail back to Port Canaveral under its own power, a spokeswoman said. The March 16 sailing will be cancelled.

Passengers will receive a refund equal to the cost of three days aboard ship and a discount on a future cruise.

Some passengers complained of toilets backing up onto floors in bathrooms and staterooms — conditions similar to the infamous Carnival Triumph “poop cruise” that ended exactly one month ago. But Carnival said it could only confirm that one public restroom was out of service due to an overflowing toilet and one guest cabin bathroom needed cleaning.

And several passengers who spent time in St. Maarten’s town of Philipsburg Thursday told The Associated Press that conditions were fine on board.

“We have toilets. We have water. It’s no different than a regular day at sea,” Tasha Larson, 31, from Winston-Salem, N.C., said after disembarking with her boyfriend to spend the day in St. Maarten.

Tammie Knapper of Hedgesville, W.Va., said she preferred another day in St. Maarten to the risk that the ship could encounter problems as sea. “It’s better that we are here than in the middle of the ocean,” she said.

Sen. “Jay” Rockefeller, D-WVa. and chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, on Thursday sent a letter to Carnival Corp. Chairman and CEO Micky Arison questioning the company’s safety record in light of the Triumph, Dream and dozens of other incidents with parent company-owned ships since 2008.

“I am deeply troubled by this incident, but I cannot say I am surprised by it,” Rockefeller wrote about the Triumph. “This is merely one in a long string of serious and troubling incidents involving your cruise ships.”

For passengers, the Carnival Dream experience was a far cry from the five-day ordeal on the Triumph, which was left powerless in the Gulf of Mexico after a fire on Feb. 10. Tugboats finally got the ship to Mobile, Ala. on Feb. 14, but more than 4,000 people on board suffered without air conditioning, hot water or working toilets.

Although the Triumph has two engine rooms, two switchboards and two propulsion systems, cabling to the forward engine room was damaged, which knocked out power to the entire ship. On Tuesday, at one of the world’s largest gatherings of cruise industry executives, Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill said the company was conducting a thorough review of its entire fleet to identify whether other ships have similar vulnerabilities.

He said the company had learned lessons from the 2010 fire aboard the Carnival Splendor, which also knocked out power, and had made improvements as a result.

Carnival spokeswoman Jennifer de la Cruz said in an email that the latest incident was different from previous situations.

“All modes of transportation, including cruise ships, have strong overall safety records but sometimes technical issues such as the one Carnival Dream is experiencing will occur from time to time,” she wrote. “We take each one seriously and closely examine what happened to determine how we can prevent it from happening in the future. Safety is always our foremost priority and we have maintained a very strong safety record over our 41-year history.”

Ernest DelBuono, senior vice president of Washington, D.C. public relations firm Levick, said the company needs to drive the safety message home. He pointed out that the incidents with the Splendor, Triumph and Dream might have been uncomfortable, but no one was injured.

“It’s not what they paid for, they’re not going to be happy, but they’re going to be safe,” said DelBuono, who is also a retired U.S. Coast Guard commander.

But more important, he said, is how Carnival operates the company moving forward.

“The way you run the ships has to run your message,” he said. “You can’t be talking about how wonderful it is to cruise on our ships and have incidents like this negate that type of a message. So operations is what they have to do — and that’s get these engineering fixes under control.”

Executives from parent company Carnival Corp. may address some of the issues Friday during a quarterly earnings call, which was announced on Thursday. Carnival stock closed Thursday at $35.73, up less than one percent.

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