Does Size Really Matter? Our Offshore Injury Lawyer Weighs in on Whether Larger Cruise Ships Pose Greater Safety Risks for Passengers

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

AquaTheater, Allure of the SeasU.S.A. Today reported yesterday morning that Holland America is taking bookings for its newest and largest ship, just in time for the holiday season. The vessel, named the Koningsdam, will offer passengers 12-night journeys to various destinations in the Mediterranean. The vessel can hold as many as 2,650 passengers.

Sounds exciting, right? Well, maybe from a cruiser’s standpoint. From the standpoint of an offshore injury lawyer, it’s little more complicated than that. Though sometimes bigger can be better, that’s not always the case when it come to cruise ships. You would think that the giant ships cruise lines are coming out with these days are the epitome of perfection…right? Think again. Sure, the newer and larger ships may have a ton of cool and innovative features, but just because a ship is large doesn’t necessary make it safer than a more modestly-sized vessel. Let’s take a look at the statistics.

In 2013, The New York Times investigated into increasing cruise ship sizes, and what was discovered will astound you. While in 1985, the largest cruise ship was 46,000 tons, today’s ships can weigh as much as 225,000 tons. Lawmakers have become increasingly concerned about cruise ship size, as cruises carried 17 million passengers in 2000. Safety experts, lawmakers, and regulators have expressed trepidation about these mega-ships.

As ships grow larger and larger, regulators question a crew’s ability to handle emergencies and fires onboard these vessels. When a captain and crew is responsible for the safety of the equivalent of a small-town population, without the amenities and governmental infrastructure of a small American town, problems can arise. Ships don’t have hospitals, fire departments, or police forces onboard. While many cruise ships offer at least one doctor and a couple of nurses on board, it’s simply not enough. Even the best doctor in the world (which you won’t find on a cruise ship anyway) cannot replace an entire hospital ER team and the medical equipment often available at even small land-based medical facilities. And, while cruises have installed cameras and taken increased security measures, these added efforts cannot replace the police force and other services available on land.

And when it comes to cruise ship fires, even larger vessels are no match. Small fires on large ships can disable critical systems, leading to big trouble, which is exactly what happened back in 2013 when the Carnival Triumph experienced a fire stemming from a fuel hose leak. The fire caused the ship to lose power, leading over 3,000 passengers to be stuck without air conditioning, working toilets, or ample food rations. After the fire, Carnival Cruise Line asserted it would take measures to prevent and handle future similar incidents, claiming around $700 million would be spent to improve onboard safety, but we have yet to see significant improvements. Even then, some researchers worry that ships’ crews do not have the ability to fight and contain these fires effectively.

Unfortunately, despite expert opinions that ships cannot get much larger without seriously putting passenger safety at risk, ship sizes continue to grow. What’s remarkable is that while the Koningsdam will be Holland America’s largest ship thus far, it nowhere compares to the behemoth at Royal Caribbean—the Allure of the Seas—which can hold over 6,000 passengers. That’s 6,000 lives that can possibly be placed at risk for offshore injuries if onboard safety isn’t at top notch quality.

Though new global regulations have put in place a “Safe to Port” rule requiring ships to have sufficiently redundant systems capable of allowing them to return to port in the case of an emergency, not all ships being currently built meet these stringent standards. Worse, The New York Times report discovered that, while ships often have sufficient lifeboats for passengers, these lifeboats do not have enough seats for the crew. The crew is required to use inflatable rafts in the event on an emergency. Yet, in a life or death situation, can passengers reasonably expect crew to give up their seats on the sturdier lifeboats? We all know that on the Titanic many individuals failed to obey the “women and children only” rule.

It seems that as long as ship sizes continue to grow, and regulation remains lax, we will continue to potentially see more accidents in the future. Hopefully the cruise industry will find a way to balance the two so that cruise lovers can not only enjoy their time on board, but can feel and actually be safe as well.