OP-ED: Cruise Lines Need a Watchdog Agency


By Rene A. Henry
Huntington News

Seattle, WA (Special to Huntingtonnews.net) – The traveling public needs an official agency to gather and report on safety, health, security and environmental issues, customer service and complaints against cruise lines.  Nearly 13 million Americans took a cruise last year and not all of them had a Love Boat experience.  The U.S. Department of Transportation regularly publicizes and ranks U.S. airlines on their on-time performance, lost baggage and customer complaints but there is no central source for consumer information regarding cruise ships.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation will hold  hearings to review whether current cruise ship industry regulations sufficiently protect passengers and the environment.  Ships have run aground and sunk.  Engine and mechanical problems have left ships stranded at sea without power and working toilets.  Fires and explosions have killed and injured passengers.  Outbreaks of Norwalk Virus, also called Norovirus, and other illnesses have ruined cruises for thousands more.  Some passengers have been seriously injured, robbed or died on shore excursions.  Add to this those who have fallen overboard and reports of assault and rape.

“When accidents do occur and lives are tragically altered, passengers have little recourse,” says committee chair Sen. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV (D-W. Va.) .  “Complicated ticket contracts limit passenger rights and antiquated laws prevent passengers from collecting fair compensation.  Our laws have not kept up with the changes in the industry, and I believe we must revisit them.”

The world’s two largest cruise lines are headquartered in Miami – Carnival Corporation and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.  Carnival had revenues last year of $14.4 billion, more than 10,000 employees and 75,000 crew.  Its combined fleet of more than 100 ships controlled 49.2% share of the worldwide cruise market sailing under brands including Carnival, Costa, Cunard, Holland America, P&O, Princess and Seabourn.  Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. is the world’s second largest with 40 ships sailing as Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises, Azamara Club and other brands.

The Department of Transportation should create a database to list all incidents and complaints regarding cruise ships but such a website would be fiercely opposed by the cruise lines.  According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in 2011 Cruise Line International Association (CLIA), the industry’s trade association, Carnival and Royal Caribbean spent a combined $3.6 million on lobbying.  This does not include money given directly to members of Congress, PACs or Super PACs or routed through law firms.  In the past four years alone CLIA spent $8.562 million and Royal Caribbean $6.847 million on lobbying.

Rockefeller has concerns that without numerous government services that the industry couldn’t operate and says that the environmental practices of cruise lines are unconscionable.  “We deserve to have the industry pay its fair share,” he said.  “Just three miles from shore, a cruise ship can discharge thousands of gallons of raw sewage.  In addition, they dump a significant amount of solid waste at sea.  The Coast Guard has limited resources to police against these devastating discharges.  We cannot continue to let our oceans fill with trash and debris.  We must adopt stronger laws to protect our fragile marine ecosystems.”

Many cruises may be more like the movie Titanic than television’s Love Boat. The January 13 sinking of the Costa Concordia required the evacuation of 4,252 people on board, killed 32 and injured 64.  According to internal company documents leaked and published in several Italian newspapers, this was the second cruise ship crashed by Captain Francesco Schettino.  He also damaged the Aida Blu cruise ship in June 2010 after sailing too quickly into the German port of Warnemunde.

In November 2007 the MS Explorer, operated by Lindblad Expeditions and the first cruise ship built with a double, ice-hardened hull for sailing in the Antarctic, hit submerged ice just south of the South Shetland Islands and sank.  All 154 passengers and crew were rescued.  Earlier in the Antarctic cruising season in January that year, 294 passengers on the Norwegian ship Nordkapp had to be evacuated after the ship struck a rock.  A third incident happened in December when another Norwegian ship, the MS Fram, lost power and drifted into a glacier wall.

While almost all of the tourist ships sailing the Antarctic are small, Carnival’s Princess Cruises’ Golden Princess with 2,425 passengers plus crew sailed the icy waters in 2006 and was the largest tourist vessel to operate in the areas.  In response to the fact that Princess does not sail ice-strengthened ships, Julie Benson, a company spokeswoman, said: “We don’t believe that [ice-strengthening] is necessary because we cruise in the summer months when it’s relatively ice free and our ships transit only in open water areas with very limited ice flows.

But like the MS Fram, ships lose power and drift without any control.  Last month a fire knocked out the power and disabled the Costa Allegra, Carnival’s sister ship to the sunken Costa Concordia.  It was adrift for four days in the Indian Ocean without lights, working toilets, water, air conditioning and hot food until it was towed to a port in The Seychelles.  There were safety concerns for the passengers because of Somalian pirates.  In 2005, after the Seabourn Spirit came under attack by two boats firing automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, many cruise lines adopted security plans for ships that sail in the area.

In November 2010 an early-morning fire in the engine room of the Carnival Splendor left the ship and its 3,299 passengers and 1,167 crew in a similar mess.  Stranded in the Pacific 130 miles West of Ensenada, Mexico, it took several days to tow the ship back to San Diego.  Both Holland America and Norwegian Cruise Lines have had ships lose power on cruises to Alaska.

Nothing could be as embarrassing to cruise line management than when the new, $500 million Crown Princess departed for New York from Port Canaveral, Florida in July 2006 with 3,100 passengers and 1,200 crew.  The ship rolled and listed badly to its portside, throwing passengers and crew to the decks; water flooded several upper decks and gushed from the swimming pool; gym equipment and television sets were flipped over; and shattered glass was strewn across the decks.  The ship righted itself before returning to port.  Initially the incident was attributed to a steering problem and the cruise line posted a letter on its website blaming human error for the tilt.

For more than a decade cruise lines have worked hard to prevent any outbreak of a virus.  Most now require passengers to use hand sanitizers before boarding the ship and in all areas serving food.  Nothing can ruin a vacation more than Norovirus, a contagious gastrointestinal illness that causes vomiting, stomach pain and diarrhea for one to three days.  This past February 5 a virus struck more than 100 people on the Ruby Princess sailing from Ft. Lauderdale to the Caribbean.  The week before another Carnival ship, the Crown Princess, was afflicted by the same virus.

The virus is spread through food and water and close contact with infected people, or things, they have touched.  It afflicts more than 23 million Americans year.  As more people sail on cruise ships the number of illnesses has increased and doubled since 2000.

All cruise lines offer shore excursions but disclaim having any liability or responsibility for the quality, safety and security or for anything that happens with the land based operators even though the cruise line was responsible for selecting or recommending the shore operator.  Land tour operators advertise their services to vacationers while they are on the ship or the cruise line does it in advance on a website.  Some ship passengers have died on shore excursions.

This is one area where passengers have almost no recourse except through litigation.  The way cruise ships market shore excursions has been the subject of lawsuits.  Charles Lipcon, a Miami lawyer, has filed class action suits against Carnival Corp., Royal Caribbean Cruises and its Celebrity Cruises unit, and Norwegian Cruise Lines.  “The companies say the excursion operators are independent, and the ship is booking the activities as a convenience for its passengers,” Lipcon said.  “What they don’t tell you is they’re keeping up to half of the money.  It’s an undisclosed charge.  A kickback.”

In March 2006, 12 American tourists sailing on Celebrity Cruises’ Millenium from Valparaiso, Chile to Ft. Lauderdale, were killed and four injured on a shore excursion when a bus plunged 300 feet down a mountain ravine near the border of Peru and Bolivia.  A press release from Royal Caribbean was quick to point out that they “were on an independent private tour, not affiliated with the cruise line.”  The cruise line obviously had a crisis plan in place that it followed because it immediately responded and reported the incident to the U.S. Consulate in Santiago, the U.S. Coast Guard and Bahamaian authorities.  It sent a special assistance team to the ship to help guests and crew, immediately issued a sympathy apology, had toll-free phone lines for family members and guests in both the U.S. and on ship, flew family members of the victims to Chile, and kept information about the accident posted on its website.

This February,  27 passengers sailing on the Carnival Splendor, which was adrift without power for four days off the Mexican coast two years ago, were robbed while sightseeing in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico.  Bandits robbed 22 people of their valuables and passports.  Just two weeks earlier the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning to Americans to avoid all but essential travel to all or parts of 14 Mexican states, including Jalisco.  Carnival suspended the tour for future sailings.

Most ships have a physician on board but that does not assure you of the capability or quality of emergency care if your appendicitis ruptures or other surgical emergencies arise.  While the ship may have facilities for surgery, the doctor may not be qualified.  Lawyers have written fine print on most tickets with a disclaimer that the doctor on board is only for the convenience of passengers and is not to be considered in any respect an employee or agent of the cruise line.  Most doctors are independent contractors whose name and photograph are in promotional materials and who are in uniform and introduced at on-board welcome parties.   “This is a very important question for millions of passengers,” says Lipcon.  “Unless cruise lines are responsible for their doctors, there is basically no recourse for passengers.”

A frequent passenger complaint is a change in itinerary, ports being skipped and delays in arriving home which can cause missed airline flights and connections.  Some  changes and delays can be because of weather and others because of mechanical problems or engine failures.  Before you sign on for a trip, ask if the cruise line will reimburse you for an airline ticket change and get answers in writing.  If you deal through a travel agent, do the same due diligence.

Cruise ships have as many different prices for cruises as do airlines for flights.  Be sure where your cabin is located and what deals you are getting.  Unlike airlines, trains and hotels, most cruise lines discriminate against single travelers and impose an additional surcharge of 135 percent, 150 percent or even 200 percent.  The most blatant form of gouging is when cruise lines charge single travelers a penalty for hotel rooms for pre- and post-cruise stays even though no hotel ever charges a single customer a penalty.

Until the U.S. government has a watchdog agency compiling information and reporting it to the media, when you are wronged here are some options:

  • File a complaint with the travel agent who booked the cruise.
  • Go to www.cruiselines.us and follow instructions.  The website suggests letting travel media know of the complaint and provides you with email addresses as well as other travel message boards and consumer sites.
  • www.travelcomplaint.com will contact the company on your behalf and seek a negotiated solution for a one-time fee of $19.99.
  • www.consumeraffairs.com is an independent web-based consumer news and resource center supported by advertising.  Click on cruise lines under travel and follow instructions.
  • www.complaints.com is a free site for all visitors and the entire content of email messages it receives are posted to its website.  The complaints are indexed by Google, Yahoo and other search engines.
  • www.thesqueakywheel.com  has a one-time $5 charge per complaint which is added to the five biggest Internet search engines.  It designs a complaint webpage and sends emails to the company you have a complaint against every time the page is viewed.
  • www.econsumer.gov is a consumer database maintained by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.  There are 13 participating countries and complaint information is shared with participating consumer protection law enforcers.
  • The Federal Maritime Commission at www.fmc.gov. The commission has very limited jurisdiction over cruise lines but has on-line forms for filing complaints.
  • Your state consumer protection agency.
  • Your local Better Business Bureau.
  • If you have a complaint about unsanitary conditions on a cruise ship, write the Chief of Vessel Sanitation Program, U.S. Public Health Service, National Center for Environmental Health, 1850 Eller Drive, Suite 101, Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33316 or phone 954-356-6650.
  • Let the travel editor of your local newspaper know of your complaint.

Rene A. Henry, a native of Charleston, WV,  lives in Seattle and writes on a variety of subjects.  He has authored eight books, two on the subject of crisis management and communications.  In his latest, “Communicating In A Crisis,” he has detailed chapters on both crisis in travel and tourism and customer service.  Many of his widely published articles are posted on his website at www.renehenry.com.