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Cruise industry under fire for safety, regulations and transparency

by Jeni Bone on 5 Mar 2012
With growth comes new challenges for the cruise industry .. ©
The second incident in as many months raises more call for scrutiny and stricter regulations for the cruise industry.

As the first hearing of the criminal investigation into the Costa Concordia disaster gets underway in Italy, in a theatre instead of a Court House because of the sheer number of survivors seeking compensation, justice and the truth, the cruise industry is under fire from lobbyists and consumer groups wanting assurances of increased safety. Prosecutor Francesco Verusio said today that examination of all the evidence, including official data and conversations involving officers on the ship's bridge, could take months.

A massive and influential sector of the leisure travel market, the cruise industry is hailed as 'the most exciting growth category in the entire leisure market', with industry statistics showing that since 1990, the industry has had an
average annual passenger growth rate of 7.2% per annum.

Last week, a liner owned by the same company as the ill-fated Costa Concordia, on which at least 25 people died and seven people are still missing when it ran aground and capsized off Italy in January, was adrift in the Indian Ocean after a fire in the engine room left it without power.

This second incident in as many months, and the very public stoush between the Costa Concordia’s Captain, Francesco Schettino and Costa Cruises have highlighted the apparent lack of regulations in the cruising industry and sparked public outcry for greater scrutiny.

In a statement, Costa Cruises (under the US giant Carnival umbrella) said the fire on the 29,000-tonne Costa Allegra, with 636 passengers and 413 crew on board, was put out and none of the passengers or crew were hurt. The Italian coastguard said in a statement it had alerted authorities on the Seychelles, which was sending rescue vessels.

The lack of global rules means there is little to stand in the way of the considerable autonomy that ships’ captains enjoy and that there is nothing on a global level to prevent practices such as 'showboating' where ships sail close to shore to give tourists and locals a better view of each other, or, contrary to common belief, to prevent a Captain from 'abandoning ship' even while his distraught passengers await rescuing.

At the time, Coast Guard and Navy commentators were quoted as pointing out that there is in fact no international law requiring the Captain go down with his ship. While this notion was dispelled as myth, more tied up with the legend of Captain Edward J Smith of the Titanic, it was damaging to the company and the cruise industry to see the rebel Schettino refusing to budge on shore while the Coast Guard ordered him back and the injured and dead were taken from his ship.

The European Cruise Council issued a statement on January 14 in response to the capsizing of the Costa Concordia that read in part: 'During the past two decades, cruise lines have maintained the best safety record in the travel industry'. A second statement issued two days later continued in that vein: 'all our member lines are subject to the highest safety standards around the world according to international maritime requirements'.



But research accumulated by Professor Ross Klein shows that patchy safety data and poor accident reporting standards make it difficult to verify how safe the industry really is and impossible for members of the public to easily compare the relative safety standards of different operators.

Professor Klein, Professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John's, Newfoundland, started the website www.cruisejunkie.com to compile the incidents, accidents, close calls and complaints of passengers and crew of cruise liners all over the globe.

In 2008, Professor Klein testified before a US congressional hearing into cruise safety, data contested by the cruise line industry and its key proponents.

Klein's data, available on www.cruisejunkie.com, suggests that for cruise ships alone there have been 368 disabling events such as fires, 174 persons overboard, 75 groundings and 27 sunken ships, giving a total of 644 incidents since 2000. That’s more than twice what the IMO data shows for cruise ships, ferries and other passenger vessels combined.

'No one keeps track of it and it's not really reported anywhere,' Klein says. 'I scour the world media every morning and look for what's been reported anywhere. I receive about 3,500 hits on my website every day, a lot of them are passengers and crew members and they send me information.'

The UN-affiliated International Maritime Organisation (IMO) maintains some conventions, such as the 1974 convention, which requires governments to supply the IMO with 'pertinent findings' from investigations in the wake of accidents and undertook that any reports or recommendations based on such filings would not disclose the identity or nationality of the ships concerned or attribute blame for any incident.

Under resolutions adopted in 1999, operators were told only that reports into incidents should be 'distributed to relevant parties involved and should preferably be made public' while pooled information on casualties was to be made available in an electronic format to governments but not to the general public.

Populated with words such as 'requested', 'urged' and 'invited', the IMO’s circulars are not reassuring to the cruising public and critics reason, the IMO’s database of Marine Casualties and Incidents must therefore be incomplete.

For the period since 2000, the IMO database has recorded just under 300 incidents involving passenger-carrying vessels ranging from near misses to sinkings although prior to 2005 the details available in relation to any given accident are often patchy.

Near misses, deaths of passengers and crew members, collisions and close calls don’t make the database. So, Professor Klein was compelled to start his own log of serious incidents.

Perhaps worse than safety incidents, Klein’s catalogue of reports from passengers and crew shows that theft, sexual assault and other crimes seem to be swept under the proverbial carpet.



Klein cites one former chief of security for Carnival Cruise Lines as describing the response to a passenger report of sexual assault or similar crime: 'You don’t notify the FBI. You don’t notify anybody. You start giving the victims bribes, upgrading their cabins, giving them champagne and trying to ease them off the ship until the legal department can take over. Even when I knew there was a crime, I was supposed to go in there and do everything in the world to get Carnival to look innocent.'

The other barrier to investigating alleged crimes, Klein explains, is that once a crime is reported, there are problems with preserving evidence. 'Passenger cabins are routinely cleaned twice a day, so much evidence is destroyed very quickly and there is often a delay between an attack and landing at a US port.'

Klein’s report detailed a 'pattern of cover?ups that often began as soon as the crime was reported at sea, in international waters where the only police are the ship’s security officers'.

'Accused crewmembers are sometimes put ashore at the next port, with airfare to their home country. Industry lawyers are flown to the ship to question the accusers; and aboard ships flowing with liquor, counterclaims of consensual sex are common. The cruise lines aggressively contest lawsuits and insist on secrecy as a condition of settling.'

Many times, crew members accused of crimes and with their files branded 'do not rehire' with one cruise line, turn up in similar positions on another.

But back to the most recent cases and what these cruise companies say they have learnt. Improvements in vessel design and more judicious placement of safety equipment, mandatory 'black box' recorders and better crew training have been suggested as areas of focus since the Costa Concordia disaster.

Under IMO rules data recorders, known as black boxes and in common use in aircrafts since the 1960s, have been mandatory aboard passenger ships since 2004 but there is an exemption for ships built before July 2002 where it can be demonstrated that fitting one alongside existing equipment would be unreasonable or impracticable.

In the case of the Costa Concordia, its black box hadn’t been working for several weeks, despite Captain Schettino’s claims he had put in a request for its repair. The ship’s 1,023 crew, recruited from agencies around the world, possessed basic emergency training but the stark reality is that they were there to staff the bars, swimming pools, theatres and casino.

Experts agree that had the Costa Concordia sunk miles out to sea, many more lives would have been lost.

For its part, the US-based Cruise Line International Association (CLIA) states that it adheres and in many cases exceeds current international codes. 'With more than 13 million passengers cruising each year, the cruise line industry goes to great lengths to maintain the safety and security of our passengers enjoying their cruise vacations. We are proud of our safety record and our long-standing partnership with law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and U.S. Coast Guard.'

The organisation continues: 'In July 2010, a new law that the cruise industry supports went into effect that contains some new provisions and clarifies other existing CLIA policies that help ensure cruising remains safe. In addition to announced and unannounced safety inspections, the U.S. Coast Guard annually conducts a Control Verification Certificate examination for every cruise ship that ports in the U.S. for compliance with both federal and international regulations.'

The CLIA states that 'Serious crime aboard cruise ships is rare' and as an industry, cruise lines have 'a zero tolerance policy when it comes to crime'.

'Cruise ships are safe and secure environments with trained, 24-hour security personnel,' it says. 'Over the past two decades, an estimated 90 million passengers have enjoyed a safe cruise vacation. In the rare instance of an allegation of crime, member lines follow comprehensive policies and procedures. These policies are working. In fact, in 2007 the U.S. Coast Guard testified before the U.S. Congress that these policies are working well and that there is 'no data to suggest that crime on cruise ships is more prevalent or sever than in any other vacation venue.'

Last week, President and CEO of CLIA, Christine Duffy represented the cruise industry before the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation at a hearing titled 'Oversight of the Cruise Ship Industry: Are Current Regulations Sufficient to Protect Passengers & the Environment?' Duffy reaffirmed cruise ship industry commitment to safety, security and environmental protection.

The industry is evolving in response to incidents and complaints. According to news reports in the weeks following the Costa Concordia tragedy, the IMO is open to the idea of reform and its Secretary-General Koji Sekimizu has stated that his organization should seriously consider the lessons to be learnt.

The first step should be a thorough review of Professor Klein’s report, accumulated from the experiences of passengers and crew.

More at http://www.cruisejunkie.com/Senate%20Testimony%20(Klein).pdf

For Cruise Line International Association policies visit cruiseindustryfacts.com

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