In the Wake of Ugly Incidents at Sea, the Cruise Industry Is in Hot Water

When one cruise ship experiences problems at sea, it's categorized as an isolated incident. What happens when several ships operated by the same company run into high-profile trouble?

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When one cruise ship experiences problems at sea, it’s categorized as an isolated incident. What happens when several ships operated by the same company run into high-profile trouble? Lawmakers start grumbling, and threatening the entire cruise industry.

The so-called “cruise from hell” that left Carnival Triumph passengers stranded for five days without working toilets was a black eye for the cruise industry, and for Carnival Cruise Lines in particular. Most disturbing of all is the Triumph incident has been followed by a string of other problems aboard its sister ships.

Last week, a trip aboard the Carnival Dream had to be cut short due to technical problems, and roughly 4,300 passengers were flown home early, and given partial refunds and discounts on future cruises. According to CNN, passengers on the Dream complained of “human waste all over the floor in some of the bathrooms,” and that for hours before the evacuation, “We are not allowed off of the boat despite the fact that we have no way to use the restrooms onboard.” As a peace offering, the Los Angeles Times reported, Carnival flew in Grammy-winning artist Jon Secada to perform for Dream passengers while they were stuck on the ship.

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Over the years, enough things have gone wrong on sailings with Carnival and its affiliated brands—the company also owns Costa Cruises, infamous for last year’s Concordia tragedy—that a photo history of the cruise line’s disasters was created.

And enough things have gone wrong on Carnival sailings recently to draw the attention of prominent U.S. lawmakers. After the Dream breakdown, U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), chairman of the committee that oversees cruise ships, release a statement announcing, “This latest cruise ship breakdown raises serious concerns about the industry’s ability to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience for its passengers.” Lautenberg noted, “Cruises are for families and friends to relax and enjoy life, and we owe it to the public to look into this industry and ensure that safety never takes a vacation.”

Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) wrote a letter to Carnival CEO Micky Arison (and simultaneously sent it to the media) asking him about the “string of 90 marine casualty incidents with passengers onboard Carnival ships in the last five years” that have been responded by the U.S. Coast Guard. “Given that you reportedly pay little or nothing in federal taxes, do you intend to reimburse the Coast Guard and the Navy?” Rockefeller asked. The Coast Guard reportedly incurred expenses to the tune of $780,000 during the Triumph debacle, and $3.4 million during an incident involving the Carnival Splendor. “It seems that Carnival has failed to take any meaningful course of corrective action after these continual incidents. This needs to change.”

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Not be outdone by his colleagues, Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) over the weekend called for a Cruise Ship “Bill of Rights” that would guarantee passengers basic provisions such as “the right to a full refund for a trip that is abruptly canceled due to mechanical failures” and “the right to disembark a docked ship if basic provisions cannot adequately be provided onboard.” In the press release, Schumer lashed into the industry:

“Cruise ships, in large part operating outside the bounds of United States enforcement, have become the wild west of the travel industry, and it’s time to rein them in before anyone else gets hurt,” said Schumer. “This bill of rights, based on work we’ve done with the airline industry, will ensure that passengers aren’t forced to live in third world conditions or put their lives at risk when they go on vacation.”

For its part, Carnival announced last week that it was conducting “a comprehensive review of our entire fleet” in the wake of the Triumph incident. That was right before the Carnival Dream experienced a generator failure in the Caribbean and all the passengers had to be flown to Florida. CBS News reported that just after the problems with the Dream, the Carnival Legend had to cancel a stop in Grand Cayman due to trouble with the ship’s propulsion system. The Carnival Elation also recently had problems with its steering functions and it had to be escorted by tugboat back to port in New Orleans.

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The story also noted that a year ago, after the Costa Concordia tragedy, the company stated it was undergoing a “comprehensive audit and review of all safety and emergency response procedures across its ten brands to identify lessons learned and best practices.”

The question is: What lessons, if any, has Carnival learned?