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ARE YOU THINKING ABOUT TAKING A CRUISE?

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Eileen Flynn, an author and college professor, shares her experience in the interests of passenger safety and public awareness.

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The Montréal Review, May 2013

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Cruise thru Cubes (2001 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, acrylic on canvas)

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This is an account of one consumer's disturbing experience with a cruise operator. It is consumers who buy products and services. It is to consumers that products such as vacation cruises are marketed. Corporate profits and loss depend on consumer choice. I hope that one consumer's dismal experience – mine – will serve as a springboard for meaningful change in the way the cruise industry operates.

Experience: In the spring of 2012 my husband and I decided to take a Princess cruise because the timing fit in with our schedules and because the cruise left from New York City . We would be able to park at the pier; we would not need to fly to a distant port. We looked forward to a late celebration of our anniversary and the change of pace the trip promised.

Four or five days before the scheduled departure on October 27, 2012, we began to be alarmed by weather forecasts. Systems from the south and west and the north and west were taking shape that would likely meet in the mid-Atlantic and result in a monster storm. By October 27th there was no question that a super storm was fast approaching. Knowing that Hurricane Sandy was one thousand miles wide and that the Caribbean Princess could not sail north, south or east and avoid gale to hurricane force winds and swells of thirty feet and more, my husband and I decided not to put ourselves in danger if the cruise line did not cancel the sailing. As it turned out the ship boarded passengers and sailed into the hurricane without us.

A few days before the sailing we called Customer Service and requested a refund; we were turned down. In an attempt to reassure us the Representative said that the Captain would do nothing to jeopardize passenger safety. I relayed this information to our travel agent who advised us, based on the forecast, not to board the ship. She was incredulous when she called Princess Cruise lines herself and was told that the cruise would not be cancelled.

According to the original itinerary Voyage B 237 was scheduled to sail to Bermuda; because of the hurricane the destination was changed and the ship left port with its destination unknown. As it turned out, approximately thirty hours after leaving New York City the Caribbean Princess docked in Boston because of hazardous conditions at sea. On its way to Boston the ship encountered Beaufort force 7 winds. Monday morning in Boston the winds were so strong that the ship came close to slipping off its berth. Due to storm danger, a state of emergency had been declared in Boston on October 27, 2012, with many offices shut down and most services unavailable. (More on this story: "Paris couple survives cruise through hell," Brantford Expositor, Nov.4).

It would be a mistake to frame this case in terms of the right of passengers to refunds when they do not board cruise ships due to deadly storms. More than money is at stake: the major issues of concern are passenger safety and the recklessness of placing first responders in danger. Could the Coast Guard have removed a passenger suffering a heart attack from the ship and transported that passenger to a hospital? In the event of a fire on the ship or some other emergency, could passengers have been safely transferred to life boats? I wish there was a way to learn how many passengers fell and suffered serious injuries as they tried to move about the rocking, rolling ship.

I contend that the decision of cruise management to go ahead with Voyage B 237 was ethically wrong because passenger safety was disregarded and the rights of first responders were ignored. Ethics are important for the long term viability of a company, and putting passenger safety first would have had a lasting benefit for the cruise corporation. The short term gain realized from holding onto passenger fares will likely have a negative impact on stakeholders going forward. Cruise employees, stock holders, members of the Board of Directors, travel agents who count on commissions and various media which rely on advertising dollars can not expect to profit from their association with unethical companies. The corporation under discussion is Carnival Corporation which is based in Miami Florida and which owns several subsidiary cruise lines, including Costa Cruises, Holland America and Princess Cruises. Responsibility for the decision to sail into Hurricane Sandy rests on executives in Carnival's main office as well as on executives from Princess Cruise who are based in Santa Clarita, California.

Difficulties in Implementation of Solution: Carnival/Princess put passengers and first responders at unnecessary risk when the Caribbean Princess embarked on Voyage B 237. This was clearly the wrong thing to do. But that sailing did take place and nothing can change that fact. Going forward two things need to happen.

First, cruise executives need to admit that they put passengers in danger on October 27, 2012 and they need to clearly state that going forward they guarantee that their ships will not board passengers and sail into hurricanes. The specific cruise executives to whom I refer are: Micky Arison, CEO, Carnival Corporation, Gerry Cahill, CEO and President, Carnival Cruise Lines, and Alan Buckelew, CEO and President, Princess Cruise Lines.

Second, cruise passengers need to be safeguarded so that, if cruise executives do not adopt the policy just advocated, there are laws to keep ships from leaving port under perilous conditions. As Hurricane Sandy approached, airports were closed; subways and surface transportation were shut down; people were told to shelter in place and stay off the roads.

Unfortunately, putting laws in place is easier said than done because agencies of the U.S. government have minimal jurisdiction over ships that sail from U.S. ports. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D, WVA) said that a unique and complex set of international rules govern the operations of ships and the safety of passengers. “I believe that these rules work to protect the companies rather than their passengers.”

Since this is the case and cruise executives do not fear the repercussions of breaking nonexistent laws, what options are available to prevent tragedies from occurring at sea during hurricanes?

Two agencies are tasked with oversight of Princess Cruises: the Federal Maritime Commission and the Bermuda Department of Maritime Administration. The Federal Maritime Commission is based in Washington, D.C. According to its website, its mission is “to foster a fair, efficient and reliable international ocean transportation system and to protect the public from unfair and deceptive practices.”

The policy statement of the Bermuda Department of Maritime Administration asserts:

“The Department of Maritime Administration is committed to being a high quality shipping register and maritime administration that will consistently provide a high standard of service, information, and support to its customers in support of their businesses while ensuring that Bermuda ships meet all international requirements. In achieving this it will continuously review its performance and seek to improve those services and support while growing the register for the benefit of Bermuda.”

I emailed the Federal Maritime Commission in February, 2013 asking specifically for an inquiry into the reckless decision of cruise management to allow the Caribbean Princess to sail into Hurricane Sandy. I followed up with emails sent in March and April. In part I wrote, “I n view of the storm's potential for destruction, why was the Caribbean Princess allowed to depart and sail? The Federal Maritime Commission needs to investigate the decision of cruise management and make a determination as to whether or not Carnival/Princess acted in such a way as to endanger passengers.” As of May 10, 2013, the FMC's response to my emails was the issuance of a Case Number; I have not received a substantive answer to the specific question I asked. The contact person assigned to my case is Ms. Nancy Shoupe.

Because the Caribbean Princess sails under the flag of Bermuda, the ship is under the jurisdiction of the Bermuda Department of Maritime Administration. In my attempts since February 2013 to get this agency to address the issue of ships boarding passengers and sailing into hurricanes I have received a few emails from Representative Margaret Benn. The last was dated March 19th and stated: “Kindly be advised the matter is in progress and we shall revert as soon as we have an updated status report.” No indication was given as to when that might be.

In light of the above it seems that implementation of a solution is questionable. The cruise executives named, Micky Arison, Gerry Cahill and Alan Buckelew have not issued an apology for allowing Voyage B 237 to proceed. Neither have they promised that, given similar circumstances in the future, ships would not board passengers. The Congress of the United States knows that the cruise industry needs to be restrained by laws, but it lacks jurisdiction over vessels that are registered in other countries. The Federal Maritime Commission and the Bermuda Department of Maritime Administration seem to be paper tigers which lack the muscle to outlaw reckless practices by cruise management. The fact that they are nonresponsive to consumers like me portends badly for future vacationers who are faced with the choice of boarding a ship and sailing into a hurricane or losing their money.

Current State of the Matter:

A dangerous situation exists. This status quo is unacceptable. Is there any way to bring about the needed change in policy? A few ideas suggest themselves.

The public needs to be informed that the Caribbean Princess embarked on Voyage B 237 and ignored the safety of passengers in order to avoid refunding their fares. Carnival Cruise Corporation and its subsidiaries, including Princess Cruise lines, should suffer a blow to their reputation because of their disregard of passenger safety. Vacationers can spend their money elsewhere.

If and when a disaster happens and a cruise ship cannot be aided by the Coast Guard because of hurricane conditions, widespread coverage will occur and changes will be made. Then it will be too late for the passengers and crew on the affected ship. People need to speak up in advance of a disaster in order to convince friends and neighbors to avoid danger.

Consumers who choose to sail on a ship owned by the Carnival Corporation might want to contact company executives and, prior to booking, request that policies be put in place to prevent sailing into a Superstorm like Hurricane Sandy.

The role of the media is clear. It is a shame that newspapers and websites that depend on the travel industry for revenue are reluctant to broach issues that negatively impact the cruise lines; but this is short term thinking. Long term thinking takes a big picture view. Although puff pieces that flatter the cruise industry and seduce vacationers are the bread and butter of newspapers with Sunday travel sections, when publications fail to address the ugly underside of the cruise industry they do a disservice to themselves as well as their readers.

Let us not underestimate the power of social media. Facebook and Twitter can counter the PR efforts of the Carnival Corporation by letting prospective vacationers know what a chance they are taking if they book with Princess or any of the other ships owned by the Carnival Corporation. Change can come from the bottom up as well as from the top down.

Some Things to Consider:

Is it reasonable to defend a corporate policy which shouts “Gotcha!” to the vacationer who balks at boarding a cruise ship due to hurricane conditions and requests a refund?

Many instances of corporate wrongdoing have been uncovered due to whistleblowers. When the whistleblower is a customer, not a company insider, how likely is it that he or she will be able to be a change agent?

The media played a large role in exposing the negligence of the Carnival Corporation when the Costa Concordia ran aground off Tuscany in 2012, resulting in 32 deaths, 2 missing and presumed dead, and 64 injured. The fire that happened in February 2013 on the Carnival Triumph and crippled the huge ship, resulting in horrific conditions was the subject of round the clock coverage for days on end. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy the media was preoccupied with the devastation on land and almost entirely missed the alarming story that Voyage B 237 on the Caribbean Princess took passengers into the storm's path. How can consciousness be raised about this issue of passenger safety so that no ship boards passengers and leaves port under similar conditions going forward?

As the Triumph catastrophe played out, Gerry Cahill, President and CEO of Carnival, said: "We pride ourselves with providing our guests with a great vacation experience.” Is it realistic to expect that Carnival Corporation and its subsidiaries hold themselves to this articulated standard or should vacationers expect far less from this cruise vendor?

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Eileen P. Flynn is a Professor in the Department of Theology at Saint Peter's University, Jersey City, NJ. The author of sixteen books and numerous articles, Dr. Flynn's latest work is Ethical Lessons of the Financial Crisis, Routledge, 2012.

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