Cruise Season is in Full Swing in South Florida, But What About Maritime Safety?

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Ship sailing into portSouth Florida is the hot spot for cruise tourism. As maritime lawyers in Miami, our firm knows exactly how hectic ports can get as cruise season goes into full swing. And with newer, bigger, seemingly better ships rolling out, there’s no telling what the cruise industry will do next to surprise us. But are things getting a little out of hand? Is the industry focusing too much on sales or passenger experience over passenger safety?

Almost every month, a cruise company announces that a new ship is being created, released or refurbished.  Here in South Florida, that is not breaking news. On sailing days, The Port of Miami is lined almost to capacity with rows of cruise ships waiting to take adventurous travelers on the experience of a lifetime. And this 2013-14 cruise season is making quite a splash. Most new ships are being directed to Miami or Fort Lauderdale, including several new ships like the Royal Princess, which debuted last month. This ship, added to the several dozen that already sail out of Port Miami or Port Everglades and you’ve got a lot of maritime traffic.

And this traffic isn’t dying down anytime soon. In fact, it’s just getting started. With winter approaching, many travelers head down to South Florida to enjoy the warm weather and head out to an equally warm destination to pass the cold in the comfort of the Caribbean sun. Many lines are also adding new ports to their Caribbean itineraries to spice them up and give guests something new to experience.  From our experience, if you are thinking about taking a cruise and are trying to save some money, now is the time to book. Prices are generally lower this time of year, but that doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy the same perks of cruise travel you get at the higher rates.

Ships are coming out with exciting new entertainment activities as well. Royal Princess, for example, is now offering a huge “Movies Under the Stars” screen and SeaWalk, an enclosed glass-bottomed walkway that allows cruisers to walk  28 feet beyond the ship’s edge. Disney Cruise Line is also rolling out with a bigger water slide and Celebrity Cruises is offering the world’s first mobile casino, where guests can download casino apps and actually play to win real cash from the convenience of their smart phones.

Sounds pretty cool, huh? It is, there’s no doubt about that. But is passenger safety being kept paramount in the design and use of all these activities?  Our experience tells us not really. Cruise lines are investing all their energy into making South Florida’s cruise season the best yet, coming out with tons of cool activities, but not everything that works on land based results can safely be implemented on board moving platforms especially when alcohol is added to the mix.

Ship board water slides, walkways, FlowRiders, and other fun features have caused passengers – many of which are children – with serious injuries. Are cruise lines spending enough time testing these features to make sure they are up to par with maritime safety standards or are they just focusing on getting these ships out there for the public so they can make their revenue and that’s that?

Though this cruise season has seen a lot of upgrades, it has also seen accidents, both at sea and in port. Nearly every week we hear about a passenger becoming sick with Norovirus, experiencing a medical emergency and having to be airlifted, or getting involved in an altercation with another passenger or crew member.  Accidents – and crimes – at sea are common, and though no one wants to focus on the dark side of cruising, it doesn’t mean that side doesn’t exist.

Despite the innovative equipment used by cruise lines to rev up their features, safety is still an issue.  February’s Carnival Triumph fire debacle has gone down in history as a prime example. Though any ship should have backup generators in place to ensure passengers are not left without electricity in the event of a fire, the Triumph, a relatively large vessel, had no emergency generators. This meant that nearly 4,000 people were stuck in the middle of the ocean for five long days without air-conditioning, working toilets and with barely anything to eat.

Following that incident, Carnival said it was going to undertake a multimillion-dollar effort to improve safety features, including installing backup generators, but this is no small feat. This kind of overhaul requires time and diligence.  So no surprise, to date we haven’t seen any changes yet.

Overboard accidents are also more common than the cruising public knows.  Infrared technology is available for use that will detect a victim in the waters and make it much easier – and faster – for a rescue to take place. This technology is affordable, portable and easily usable on ships it shouldn’t be an option, it should be a requirement on all Cruise ships. Alas, this equipment not to our knowledge currently on any Cruise ships.

All the technology to improve safety is available, the cruise lines are simply not keeping abreast of it or worse deciding not to avail themselves of it.  When will the industry change?  Your guess is as good as ours.