Irma was the ‘most trying storm’ ever for cruise lines. How well did they respond?

Andy Stuart, President and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line, welcomes passengers from St. Thomas aboard the Norwegian Sky as part of a rescue mission the cruise line operated to the island following the passage of Hurricane Irma. The line evacuated nearly 1,000 stranded visitors in St. Thomas.
Andy Stuart, President and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line, welcomes passengers from St. Thomas aboard the Norwegian Sky as part of a rescue mission the cruise line operated to the island following the passage of Hurricane Irma. The line evacuated nearly 1,000 stranded visitors in St. Thomas. Norwegian Cruise Line

In the days before Hurricane Irma made landfall at Cudjoe Key, the cruise industry was gearing up for a potentially crippling situation.

Irma, at one point a Category 5 storm, had already left behind devastation at top Caribbean ports and was taking dead aim for the cruise capital of the world — South Florida — where the three largest lines are based. That meant that lines had to focus on not only rearranging cruise schedules and keeping passengers out of the path of the storm but doing the same for their thousands of employees in Florida.

It didn’t help that hurricane-induced panic was already on the minds of many following Hurricane Harvey, when images of a flooded Houston overwhelmed social media. That panic had begun to spill over to travelers who would likely be impacted by Irma.

The situation was made worse by the timing: Irma was set to hit on a weekend, when multiple cruise ships were set to disembark passengers and pick up new ones.

“This was the most trying storm I’ve ever seen in more than 20 years covering the cruise industry,” said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of the website “It was a perfect storm of insanity.”

And yet, the response was in many ways organized and proactive, a strong departure from how cruise lines handled storms a decade ago.

“It was kind of a defining moment in terms of really how the business has changed since Wilma [in 2005] and other storms,” said Mike Driscoll, editor of the trade publication Cruise Week. “In the past they were not very reactive to consumer complaints — they tried to downplay.”

To be sure, the response was by no means perfect. Some cruises were canceled at the last minute, introducing a bevy of challenges for travelers who had to fly into Florida to take a cruise or who were waiting for a last-minute confirmation that their ship would leave. One line dropped passengers off in Miami just days before the storm hit, sparking confusion, but the line was able to accommodate all passengers on another ship sailing away from the storm.

But across the three major lines — Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International — one response was universally celebrated: How they used their resources to offer relief, either through rescue missions, donations or the delivery of supplies.

“They used the transportation side of their industry the best we’ve ever seen,” said Vicky Garcia, chief operating officer and co-owner of Cruise Planners, an American Express Travel Representative.

Below is the Miami Herald’s analysis on how the three major lines handled the challenges imposed by Irma.

Carnival Cruise Line

Communication response: Good.

Carnival had frequent updates about changes to its 11 sailings. Unlike the other lines, Carnival had to juggle a large number of itinerary modifications, some of which resulted in outright cancellations, from the first days of the storm’s track across the Atlantic and then Caribbean.

The line also allowed guests to text a code, personalized to each ship, to receive frequent updates on their sailings.

Execution response: Mixed depending on the situation.

Carnival’s vast operation, easily three times larger than the other lines, created the most logistical challenges when it came to executing a hurricane plan that not only included moving ships to safety, but determining when to cancel sailings or risk drawing tourists to Florida who may then be stuck in the state when the storm hit. Spencer Brown described the challenges Carnival faced as having an “incomprehensible degree” of difficulty.

Those whose sailings were canceled received a refund for their bookings.

But Carnival, unlike other lines, doesn’t offer refunds for modified sailings, only future cruise credit. And, while the other lines only had a few sailings to cancel, Carnival tried to refrain from canceling voyages in an effort to preserve booked vacations.

That also meant that some travelers who did not live near ports were strung along for days as the line continued to postpone departure dates. Some worried they’d fly into Florida and then their sailing would be canceled, stranding them in a state where lodging was already difficult to come by before the storm hit.

Some simply couldn’t make it to Florida at all.

South Carolina airline pilot Darren Vance said the itinerary changes kept him and his family of five waiting for days before Carnival decided to cut their eight-day sailing to four days. The departure was set for Sept. 13, three days after Irma’s passage, when the number of flights into Miami International Airport was still limited.

“It wasn’t even a possibility to think you are going to get on a plane to fly to South Florida to catch a cruise,” Vance said. “As a result we squandered our time off from work. It has really soured me on Carnival going forward.”

Carnival spokeswoman Jennifer De La Cruz said the line’s priority was safety.

“If we can operate a voyage to preserve people's highly anticipated vacation plans, we will do so. We know from decades of experience with these storms that slight shifts in the forecast track can make a difference in our operations so final determinations are not always made several days in advance although behind the scenes we are planning for a variety of different scenarios,” she said in a statement.

Relief response: Good.

Carnival set up a long-term relief program for the Caribbean using 11 ships to bring supplies to islands impacted by Irma and later Maria. The line is sending supplies both through stops on its itineraries and by partnering with third parties for deliveries.

Parent company Carnival Corp. is donated $10 million in funding and in-kind support through the Micky and Madeleine Arison Family Foundation.

Norwegian Cruise Line

Communication response: Good.

Norwegian sent out regular updates on the status of its two ships, the Norwegian Escape and Norwegian Sky.

Execution response: Good, save one hiccup.

Norwegian quickly canceled sailings that would be affected by the arrival of Irma on the weekend, a time when most ships drop off passengers and begin new sailings. Those on canceled sailings got a full refund and future cruise credit. Those on modified sailings got a refund for the days lost, future cruise credit, plus change fees for flights of up to $300 per person.

Norwegain was the first cruise line to provide a ship as lodging for guests who could not get accommodations once the Norwegian Escape docked in Miami a few days before Irma’s arrival.

The line said at the time that the number of guests on the Norwegian Sky, which was also set to drop off passengers in Miami before the storm, who indicated they wanted to remain on the vessel during the storm was very small. So that option wasn’t extended to guests on the Sky. Norwegian instead planned to move Sky guests who wanted to remain on a ship to the Norwegian Escape.

But when the 2,004-passenger Sky arrived in Miami on Sept. 7, the number of guests who didn’t want to stay in Miami had grown. The incident reached the ears of Sen. Marco Rubio, who criticized the cruise line for dropping passengers off in Miami, a city that would be under an evacuation order later that day, where hundreds of flights had been canceled and where few lodging options remained.

Ultimately, Norwegian’s employees at the port were able to accommodate all passengers who could not make other arrangements out of Miami by either putting them on the Escape or working with area hotels.

“Everyone I talked to said it worked out,” Driscoll said. “I think they had an answer to it [you could get on the other ship], but I guess it was a communication issue. In hindsight it kind of worked out and the issues didn’t grow.”

Relief response: Good.

Following the passage of Irma in the Caribbean, Norwegian helped coordinate the evacuation of nearly 1,000 stranded visitors, displaced residents and their pets in St. Thomas on the Norwegian Sky. The line also delivered 35 pallets of supplies, including nonperishable food, ice, bedding and clothing, to the battered island.

“The question wasn’t if we could go, but how fast we could get there,” wrote President and CEO Andy Stuart in a message on the cruise line’s website. “In my 30 years of working for Norwegian Cruise Line, it was my proudest moment.”

Royal Caribbean International:

Communication response: Good.

Royal Caribbean send out and posted frequent daily updates on its website on the status of its ships.

Execution response: Good.

Instead of dropping off passengers ahead of the storm, Royal Caribbean decided early on to delay the return of three ships, Oasis, Harmony and Allure of the Seas, until the storm passed. It also canceled voyages early in the week that would be impacted by Irma over the weekend. Guests on canceled voyages received a full refund and future cruise credit.

Travelers on sailings that were modified were refunded for the portion of their visit that they lost and were given future cruise credit as well.

Travel agent Russ Russell, a Cruise Planners franchise owner in Texas, was on Allure of the Seas, one of the ships delayed until the passage of the storm. He said the line remained in constant communication with passengers as it shifted its itinerary to avoid Irma.

“For all of the guests on the ship, Royal Caribbean set up down in its conference center, Internet cafes and phone banks and were giving people free time on the Internet and on the phone so they could rearrange what they need for their travel,” Russell said.

Relief response: Excellent.

Royal Caribbean gets extra points for being the first cruise line to create a comprehensive relief program, both for its employees and for islands impacted in the Caribbean.

“[Royal] set the standard. They came out first,” Driscoll said. “They did a lot for their employees and, to me, how you treat your employees is really representative of how you treat your customers.”

On Sept. 8, the cruise line evacuated 1,500 employees, their families and pets, on Enchantment of the Seas away from Irma. The next day, the cruise line announced it would be deploying four ships for relief efforts, two of them in the Caribbean and two of them on stand by to help in Florida.

In the end, Adventure of the Seas and Majesty of the Seas evacuated a combined 1,700 people in St. Thomas and St. Maarten.

The cruise line also delivered more than 25 pallets of medical supplies, 29,571 gallons of water, 13,050 pounds of animal supplies, 9,355 gallons of milk, 7,000 pounds of ice, 110,500 garbage bags, 4,200 rolls of toilet paper, 450 power generators and 30,504 batteries.

The line also went beyond using ships that already had canceled sailings. Royal instead canceled two planned sailings, one for Empress of the Seas and one for Majesty of the Seas, in order to use the ships for relief efforts.

“It was an unprecedented relief effort,” Driscoll said.

Chabeli Herrera: 305-376-3730, @ChabeliH

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