Wednesday’s hearing, which focused on consumer protection, follows a difficult stretch for cruise companies, which have been plagued by fires and technical problems this year. The Carnival Triumph was left without power at sea for days following a fire in February; in May, Royal Caribbean International’s Grandeur of the Seas also suffered a fire but did not lose power. Rockefeller last called a hearing in March 2012 in response to the shipwreck of the Costa Concordia in Italy that killed 32 people.
“If the industry is seriously working to improve the safety and security of its ships, why have we witnessed so many serious incidents in the last 16 months?” Rockefeller asked in his opening statements. “Is the industry really trying to adopt a culture of safety or are the safety reviews and temporary investments a cynical effort to counter bad publicity?”
U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Joseph Servidio, another witness, disclosed some early findings about the Grandeur of the Seas fire in written testimony, including the fact that aluminum deck hatches that were not insulated failed, which let the fire affect other areas. He said inspectors will look at sister ships to see if there are similar issues.
Servidio also revealed that the Carnival Triumph was detained for a day last month by the agency before it returned to service because of problems with lifeboat drills, fire detection systems and fire sprinkler systems.
“Those are significant problems and, as such, we detained the vessel until they were rectified,” he said, adding that the issues were taken care of by the following day.
A Carnival Cruise Lines spokeswoman said the “items for corrective action” were identified June 12 and the vessel was approved to sail on June 13, as scheduled.
Rockefeller had harsh words for Carnival Cruise Lines president and CEO Gerry Cahill, who also testified.
“It’s easy to say that things happen infrequently, but when they happen, they affect an awful lot of people,” Rockefeller said. “And they’re happening, even to the extent that the public knows about it, more frequently than necessary.”
Cahill highlighted the steps Carnival has taken since the 2010 Carnival Splendor fire and February’s Triumph ordeal, including a $300 million investment in the entire fleet to upgrade backup power and fire safety equipment.
“We were able to fulfill our obligation of keeping everyone safe,” Cahill said. “What we did do very unfortunately, was we really seriously put our guests in an uncomfortable position. And that bothers us a great deal.”
In May, CLIA and its member lines adopted a 10-item passenger bill of rights, including the right to a refund if a trip is canceled or cut short and the right to disembark a docked ship if conditions on board are not satisfactory. But that list drew scrutiny at the hearing over how the rights would be enforced and what policies would take precedence in case of a conflict with passenger contracts of carriage.
Goldstein said the industry wanted to release the passenger list of rights quickly and said “a good number of cruise lines are in the process of trying to eliminate any perceived inconsistencies.”
Rockefeller, a longtime industry critic, closed the two-hour hearing with a preview of his next move: legislation that he said would close tax loopholes that largely exempt cruise lines from paying corporate taxes.