Cruising for a bruising: Jay puts industry on notice
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Cruises across oceans, along rivers and inside bodies of water like the Gulf of Mexico and the Mediterranean Sea are popular among tourists throughout the world.
Cruises are also raising increasing concerns, in the wake of recent accidents that led to passenger deaths and serious environmental contaminations.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, has been holding Senate hearings and investigations into problems and public concerns about cruise lines.
Rockefeller recently directed special attention to "90 marine-casualty incidents that the Coast Guard has investigated onboard Carnival Corporation-owned cruise ships" over the past five years.
Last month, Rockefeller mentioned problems related to the Carnival Dream, a cruise ship that got stranded in a Caribbean port without power with thousands of passengers trapped onboard.
Rockefeller also expressed concerns about the recent Carnival Triumph engine room fire that left more than 4,000 passengers and crew members stranded at sea in February, enduring "unbearable living conditions."
Since that fire which disabled the ship's main power lines and left it dead in the water, Carnival has canceled 26 different voyages on the Triumph.
Two voyages, scheduled to begin on June 3 and June 8, were cancelled on Friday. Carnival also announced it is moving the Triumph from Mobile, Ala. to the Bahamas to complete needed repair work.
Carnival officials announced this week that they would spend $300 million on a program to improve fire safety and engine rooms and add generators to the company's 24 cruise ships.
Carnival said the first phase of improvements involves installing an additional emergency generator on every ship to ensure operation of safety equipment and services like plumbing, fresh water and elevators in a power loss, The Associated Press reported. The extra temporary generators will eventually be replaced by permanent generators.
Carnival is also installing high-pressure upgraded water mist systems on all ships to improve fire safety. All of those measures will be completed in 18 months, Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill said in a phone call Wednesday, the AP reported.
In February, the U.S. Coast Guard spent nearly $780,000 responding to the Carnival Triumph problems. Initially, Carnival also declined to reimburse the Coast Guard for those expenses.
After learning Carnival reversed its position and promised to reimburse the government for those expenses, Rockefeller said, "I'm glad to see that Carnival owned up to the bare minimum of corporate responsibility by reimbursing federal taxpayers for these two incidents.
"I am still committed to making sure the cruise industry as a whole pays its fair share in taxes, complies with strict safety standards, and holds the safety of its passengers above profits."
Rockefeller asked for detailed information about Carnival's cruise ship problems in a March 14 letter he sent to Micky Arison, CEO and chairman of the board of directors of Carnival Corp.
"I see no evidence that the company has undertaken any meaningful course of corrective action to improve its safety record," Rockefeller wrote to Arison. "It seems that Carnival has failed to take any meaningful course of action after these continual incidents. This needs to change."
Ted Lawson, CEO of National Travel in Charleston, said, "Overall, the cruise lines have done very well and have served the vacationing public very well.
"Carnival is the company that made cruising available to Middle America. Back in the 1980s, they are the ones who created the fun ships. Bob Dickerson, their president at the time, was very consumer-oriented," Lawson said. But he acknowledged Carnival has "had some misfortunes" of late.
"Fortunately, no one lost their lives on the Triumph. There were 4,000 people on board," Lawson said. "These things will happen if you are not constantly vigilant about maintenance and back-up systems."
He said National Travel in Charleston sells a lot of cruises on Carnival and Princess, another cruise line also owned by Carnival.
Joann Lambert, whose husband George owns Jolly Travelers in St. Albans, said that in the wake of recent problems, her company did not get enough travelers for an upcoming trip that included a cruise.
"People got scared," she said, referring to recent problems by cruise lines.
But Lambert said, "We will schedule another one next year. We are not worried about it."
Cruises promoted by Jolly Travelers often send people to several different islands in the Caribbean. "Anything can happen on any of them [trips and cruises]," Lambert said.
Cruise industry revenues top $25 billion a year, Rockefeller recently pointed out. Nearly 13 millions Americans go on cruises every years.
"A unique and complex set of rules governs the operations of the ship and the safety of passengers. I believe that these rules work to protect the companies rather than their passengers," Rockefeller said during a March 2012 Senate hearing.
Rockefeller also believes the federal government should do more to protect "the fragile ocean environment in which [cruise ships] operate."
He asked "why an industry that earns billions and uses a variety of federal services - from the Coast Guard, to the Customs Bureau, to Centers for Disease Control - pays almost no corporate income tax? ... It is inconceivable to me that this industry doesn't pay its fair share."
Christine Duffy, president and CEO of the Cruise Lines International Association, defended the industry during a March 2012 hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee, emphasizing its local economic impacts.
CLIA, Duffy said, "represents 26 major cruise lines serving North America, more than 16,000 affiliated travel agents ... and 120 executive partners spanning a broad array of industries - from ports to food suppliers" working with the industry.
"In the decade from 2001 through 2011," Duffy testified, "prior to the grounding of the [Carnival] Costa Concordia, there were a total of 28 fatalities on cruise ships related to an operational casualty.
"Twenty-two of those fatalities involved crew members," Duffy added. "Six were passengers out of approximately 223 million passengers and crew who sailed during those 10 years."
Rockefeller believes the cruise ship industry has "unconscionable" environmental policies.
"Our children and grandchildren deserve an ocean environment free of trash, sewage and hazardous materials. The industry needs to do more to protect the environment for future generations," Rockefeller said during the March 2012 Senate hearing.
The environmental group Friends of the Earth warns that cruise ships are routinely "dumping large amounts of sewage and other wastes into our oceans, polluting our beaches, contaminating our coral reefs, and destroying our valuable marine ecology."
"Millions of Americans take cruise vacations every year. Yet, most travelers don't realize that taking a cruise is more harmful to the environment and human health than many other forms of travel," the group stated last year.
During a one-week cruise, a large ship hosting more than 7,000 passengers produces about 210,000 gallons of human sewage, FOE states, the equivalent of 10 backyard swimming pools. That ship also produces four times as much water polluted from sinks, showers, laundry facilities and other activities on board.
Friends of the Earth publishes its "Cruise Ship Environmental Report Card" every year. The latest report, dated 2012, ranks 15 cruise lines. Disney Cruise Line tops the list with an A-minus rating.
FOE gives Carnival Cruise Lines a grade of D-plus. Princess Cruises and Costa Cruises, both subsidiaries of Carnival, earned ratings of B-plus and F, respectively. (The annual report is available at www.foe.org/cruise-report-card. Friends of the Earth also published a report called "Getting a Grip on Cruise Ship Pollution," which is also available on its website.)
Lawson loves the cruise industry, but hopes it begins paying more attention to potential problems.
"I like inclusive cruise vacations, where resorts include everything. The thing I really like about cruising is that you visit another port every day. It is exciting."
He wants cruise companies, like Carnival, to spend more time trying to prevent future mishaps.
"Why didn't they think about this [potential problems] before? U.S. citizens are the biggest cruisers of all. Carnival is making a lot of money and providing great memorable vacations. But you have to make sure you take care of every detail every time."
Reach Paul J. Nyden at email@example.com or 304-348-5164.