CRUISE INDUSTRY

Cruise execs, experts to testify at Senate committee hearing Wednesday

 
 
Some lawmakers have  stepped up  criticism of the cruise industry after a string of fires and other technical problems on ships such as  the deadly Costa Concordia shipwreck in Italy. Costa Concordia is a subsidiary of Miami-based Carnival.
Some lawmakers have stepped up criticism of the cruise industry after a string of fires and other technical problems on ships such as the deadly Costa Concordia shipwreck in Italy. Costa Concordia is a subsidiary of Miami-based Carnival.
Laura Lezza / Getty Images

hsampson@MiamiHerald.com

Sen. Jay Rockefeller introduced a bill targeting the cruise industry’s handling of consumer issues and crime reporting Tuesday, the day before he was set to grill cruise line executives during a hearing on the same subject.

The West Virginia Democrat has stepped up his criticism of the industry following a string of fires and other technical problems on ships in recent months, asking CEOs of the world’s largest cruise companies to release detailed information about safety, security, health and taxes. The last cruise industry hearing called by Rockefeller, in March 2012, focused on safety in the wake of the deadly Costa Concordia shipwreck in Italy.

“This bill is the only way we’re going to make consumer awareness and protection a priority, since the cruise industry seems to refuse to take action on its own,” Rockefeller, chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation, said in a press release. “During our hearing 16 months ago, after a number of high-profile incidents, the industry promised to make real changes, but I had my doubts. Once the TV cameras turned off, and the more our inquiries uncovered, it became clear that nothing was going to change without Congressional action.”

Called the Cruise Passenger Protection Act of 2013, the legislation would:

• Change crime reporting standards to make information about all crimes that are alleged on to have occurred on cruise ships publicly available. Cruise lines would also be required to keep video footage from surveillance cameras, which would have to be placed in public areas.

• Provide passengers with a clear summary of cruise contract terms and conditions.

• Give the Department of Transportation the authority to investigate consumer complaints against cruise lines.

• Create a toll-free hotline for consumers to register complaints.

• Create the position of a victim advocate who could help victims of crime on a ship, inform them of their rights in international waters and help get in touch with the appropriate law enforcement officers.

Rockefeller’s bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; California Rep. Doris Matsui, a Democrat, introduced a similar bill with Republican Rep. Ted Poe, of Texas.

Wednesday’s committee hearing, set for 2:30 p.m., will stream live online at commerce.senate.gov. At the hearing, Rockefeller also expects to release a report on crimes reported to the FBI but not released to the public. Currently, only crimes that are no longer under investigation by the FBI are included in statistics that the public can see.

For the first time at a Senate hearing, the CEOs of Carnival Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean International will answer questions. Spokespeople for both operators said it is the first time Royal Caribbean’s Adam Goldstein and Carnival’s Gerry Cahill have been invited to testify; other representatives from the lines have been witnesses in the past.

Other scheduled witnesses Wednesday are U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Joseph Servidio, the agency’s assistant commandant for prevention and policy; Mark Rosenker, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and a member of the Cruise Line International Association’s independent panel of experts and Ross Klein, a professor in the School of Social Work at Memorial University of Newfoundland who studies the cruise industry.

Klein, who maintains the website www.cruisejunkie.com, started researching the industry after going on frequent cruises in the 1990s; the subject has since become his area of academic pursuit. He has also been a paid expert witness for plaintiffs in lawsuits filed against cruise lines as well as a consultant for communities concerned about the impact of cruise ships. Although his research is frequently critical of industry practices, Klein insists he does not have an anti-cruise agenda.

“I take seriously the honor of being asked to testify and I provide as much data and background for my opinion as possible,” said Klein, 60. “I’m not there to in any way take a position against the cruise industry. I’m there to provide intelligence and digest the information that I have so the committee can make informed policy decisions.”

Rosenker, 66, was named to CLIA’s panel, for which he is paid, following the Concordia wreck. The experts were asked to assess recommendations developed by an industry-wide safety review, which produced 10 policies that have since been adopted. The panel continues to work with the industry.

Rosenker, who is also a transportation and safety analyst for CBS, said in an interview that his experience with the cruise industry has been that cruise lines have been willing to take quick action when fixes need to be made.

“They’re not waiting around for a long period of time before they act, and act in positive ways which are raising the bar of safety,” said Rosenker.

The president and CEO of CLIA, Christine Duffy, said in a statement that the industry “appreciates the opportunity” to convey its focus on passenger safety and comfort to the committee.

She continued: “We believe the senators will see that the industry is not only effectively overseen and regulated by authorities and has an exceptional operational record, but that we also initiate policies and best practices on our own to ensure that we deliver exceptional vacation value for all guests.”

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