After a bruising couple of years for the global cruise business, ship operators have emerged with a sharper focus on safety and reliability — and on setting travelers’ minds at ease.
Two years after the fatal grounding of the Costa Concordia in Italy, the industry has adopted new rules on emergency drills, ship operations and life jackets, and has introduced a “passenger bill of rights.” And Costa owner Carnival Corp., has announced massive investments in ship upgrades following the disabling fire aboard the Carnival Triumph a year ago.
“I first started cruising in 1965 and certainly I’ve not seen this level of attention and focus on safety,” said Douglas Ward, author of 2014 Berlitz Cruising and Cruise Ships. “I think all the cruise lines are definitely going in the right direction.”
Some critics say the changes are more talk than action, but cruise companies and longtime observers say the prolonged attention has led to a safer product and a greater willingness to shine a light on sensitive subjects. Everyone agrees, however, that there is more work to be done.
“Certainly the policies that have been adopted over the past two years have added to the safety capability of the industry — and safety is a journey, it’s not a destination,” said Michael McGarry, senior vice president of public affairs for the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).
After the Costa Concordia struck rocks and partially capsized the night of Jan. 13, 2012, off the Tuscan island of Giglio and killing 32, the association announced a review of safety procedures. A panel of safety experts drew up 10 recommendations that were adopted as standards by the International Maritime Organization.
Most headlines were devoted to a rule that requires cruise ships to hold emergency drills for embarking passengers before a ship leaves port — which had not happened when Concordia crashed. But other important changes required ships to carry more life vests than required by law and to ensure that crew members have twice-yearly practice loading and operating lifeboats.
In a statement Friday, CLIA highlighted those safety initiatives in a statement geared to the disaster’s second anniversary.
“Our shared sense of loss with the victims of the Concordia and their families has guided us — and will continue to guide us — as the industry maintains its focus on passenger safety, comfort and care,” the association said.
Friday, Costa Cruises released an update on the status of the wreck, which was righted this fall. The damaged vessel is now slated to be towed from Giglio in June to a port that has not yet been named; it will then be dismantled. The ship’s captain at the time of the accident, Francesco Schettino, is on trial for alleged manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning the ship before all the passengers had been evacuated.
Costa has since set up a fleet operation center to constantly monitor all ships from its headquarters, where employees can compare the planned route with the ship’s actual location. And the company has replaced its previous captain-runs-the-helm practice with more team-based approaches.
Little more than a year after the Concordia wreck, fire disabled the Carnival Triumph and brought a new worry to potential cruise travelers: the prospect of being stuck at sea for days without power or working toilets. No one was injured in the blaze that disabled the Triumph’s power, but the incident drew weeks of negative news coverage.
Although regular Carnival customer Louis Huss said he was surprised by the line’s handling of the Triumph incident, he said he still booked this year’s Caribbean trip on the Carnival Conquest without any concerns.
“I would think that Carnival sat down and had a needs assessment and figured out what they were doing wrong,” said Huss, an attorney who lives in Kendall.
Indeed, the disaster prompted Carnival Corp. to announce an investment of almost $700 million across its 10 brands to improve fire-safety infrastructure, operating redundancy and backup power. Carnival Cruise Lines alone accounts for more than $300 million in fixes.
Mark Jackson, Carnival Cruise Lines’ vice president of technical operations, said additional diesel generators designed to provide emergency backup power will be installed on all 24 ships by the end of January. More fire-suppression systemswill be in place by the end of this year. The company is reworking cable systems so a fire in one engine room will not affect power in another.
Carnival Corp. created a new position, chief maritime officer, and filled it with former Navy Vice Admiral Bill Burke in December. Burke said his mission is “to ensure we learn the lessons from recent events and act upon them.”
In the month since he started, Burke said he has gone aboard several ships, watched fire drills, observed bridge teams and studied other health, environment, safety and security issues.
“Our ships are very large and complex, and they’re not all the same,” he said. “And they all have lots of equipment which is not flawless. It sometimes breaks, and occasionally those breakages are catastrophic and cause bigger problems. So we want to get ahead of that sort of thing.”
And the line has also been working to better communicate its efforts to news and online media and, by extension, the public.
Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of CruiseCritic.com, has noticed that cruise lines have offered greater behind-the-scenes access to reporters — especially when it comes to safety and security operations.
“On the one hand, I think they’re doing even more to make sure that cruising is safe,” she said. “They’re ramping that up in a way I’ve never seen in a way that’s very powerful. And they’ve been talking about it more.”
Another message the industry was eager to spread: the introduction of a “Passenger Bill of Rights” for cruise travelers, adopted under pressure from Congress after the Triumph fire.
Provisions include the right to get off a docked ship if essential needs cannot be met on board and to be refunded if a trip is canceled or cut short.
Victor Vianello, a home-based cruise travel agent in Miami, said the bill of rights is a valuable tool when he is talking to potential customers who might be wary of boarding a ship.
“It’s restoring confidence back into the cruise industry,” said Vianello.
Some critics dismiss such measures as more talk than action.
“I think you’ve got to look at the specifics,” said Charles Lipcon, a Miami-based maritime attorney. “If you’re talking about overall, is it a safer situation? Probably a little bit — and a step in the right direction.”
But Lipcon said the Passenger Bill of Rights merely puts into writing what cruise lines were obligated to do for their guests anyway.
“It’s a lot of window dressing,” he said.
Kendall Carver, chairman of the International Cruise Victims Association, called the list of rights “a sign of desperation” that raised new questions. And even some announcements that he initially welcomed have turned into disappointments.
When cruise line officials pledged during a July Senate hearing to publish information about allegations of onboard crime, Carver said he thought it was a positive move. Some major lines released detailed information for individual operating units. But Carnival Corp. released combined numbers for four North American brands, making it difficult to examine each line.
“The very thing they said they’re going to do, they didn’t do,” Carver said.
While Capt. William Doherty, a retired safety manager for Norwegian Cruise Line who works as a safety consultant, said some aspects of cruising might have gotten safer, he does not think improvements have been significant. He believes cruise lines still need to improve training for worst-case scenarios such as massive fires with injuries, situations that disable lifeboats and disasters far out at sea.
Vianello, who has been selling cruises for more than 30 years, said he believes the changes prompted by the crises of the past two years have been positive.
“I think that by bringing something to light, it forces the cruise industry to fix whatever situation they might have had,” he said. “It’s out in the open, whereas before maybe there were problems that were hidden and people didn’t see it. It forces them to really fix it and take care of it.”
This report was supplemented with information from the Associated Press.