"Before the second plane hit, I reached the head of Princess' marine operations and said, 'this is going to be a very busy day,'" says Phil Kleweno, president of Princess Cruises.
While we all stood transfixed before our TVs as the terrorist attacks of September 11 unfolded, cruise line executives weren't afforded that luxury. With thousands of their customers literally at sea during one of the most precarious moments in our history, they had to react immediately to ensure their passengers' safety.
In case you worry about another terrorist incident occurring while you're aboard ship, or when you're on the far side of the world about to embark on a cruise, it's reassuring to know how quickly a cruise line can react, and what steps they will take to ensure your safety. The experience of Princess Cruises last September is typical of how effectively the major lines reacted in protecting their passengers.
Kleweno, like the rest of Princess' staff, immediately jumped into action. "Even before the World Trade Center fell, I notified our call center to expect a huge rush of calls," he said. Kleweno's next order of business was to account for all the employees, staff and crew, then start studying the particular situation of each ship.
"Remember, we are all very dependent on air travel, and there's a huge ripple effect in getting passengers to and from ships," he points out.
His first priority was Royal Princess, which had sailed from New York en route to Newport, Rhode Island only hours before the attacks on the World Trade Center. Then there was the matter of 300 passengers who were staying in a midtown Manhattan hotel, scheduled to board a ship of Princess' sister company, P&O. "For the first 24 hours, we had to account for each person, in some cases entering their rooms to see if the towels were wet, as evidence that they'd been in the hotel," he recalled.
The Pacific Princess, on its way back to New York, had to be diverted to Boston.
But Kleweno's biggest challenge was in Istanbul, where the Golden Princess was scheduled to disembark 2,600 passengers and board thousands of others, many of whom had just arrived in the Turkish city on or before September 11.
Trying to bring nervous passengers back home was a logistical nightmare, because all U.S. airports were shut down, and no one knew how long that would last. "There was no airlift--and we had hundreds of people in Istanbul, in a Muslim country. At the same time, our security folks were chatting with FBI, who were saying, 'Gee, you have a big white target sitting in Istanbul.'"
Kleweno said that as a matter of policy, Princess always defers to the recommendations of its own security staff. "We have security staff that interacts with all the governments. If they had said, 'I don't feel safe sitting in Istanbul,' we would have left. And we have a longstanding, loyal relationship with local officials, especially the Turkish police. We were in constant contact with them, and they doubled the number of officers in port," he said.
Still, there were nearly 800 passengers waiting to board Golden Princess, and 2,600 more disembarking in Istanbul who couldn't get out of Turkey. Princess found hotel rooms for many, and opened up the ship to accommodate those who didn't feel safe ashore. Planes were chartered all over the world to get passengers home. "We paid for everyone's air, whether they bought a ticket from us or not," Kleweno recalled.
The line decided to keep Golden Princess in Istanbul until all disembarking passengers were safely on their way out of the country. "The ship didn't move until the wheels were up on the last charter," he said.
The ship eventually left port four days late, on what was originally scheduled as a 12-day cruise to Barcelona, carrying 700 booked passengers and 700 others who stayed aboard from the previous cruise.
Kleweno credits the tireless work of his entire staff, in the Los Angeles office and aboard the company's 19 ships scattered around the globe. "Everyone in the country had their own way of processing what was happening, but our staff put off their own feelings for a week in taking care of our passengers," he said.
To learn what the experience was like for passengers, we chatted with Kathy Evans, who arrived in Istanbul on September 11, the day before her scheduled Golden Princess departure. She learned of the events happening in New York as she was visiting the Blue Mosque, where a young Moslem man told her how sorry he was that so many Americans had lost their lives. Back in her hotel, Kathy learned the awful truth from CNN.
"The next morning, September 12th, we called Princess, told them that we were in Istanbul and asked what we should do," Kathy said. "They told us to be at the dock the following morning as scheduled. The cruise was still on, but there might be some changes in the scheduled stops. We felt very fortunate. Princess could have easily chosen to cancel the cruise and we would have been left with very few options."
"From the very beginning of the cruise, Princess told us that the safety of their passengers took priority over everything else," she recalled. She said the line kept its shore-side customers well informed of their options, including the line's plan to charter a plane flight from Istanbul to the U.S. Kathy opted to go on the ship, where on the second day of the cruise, the captain announced that everyone who boarded in Istanbul would receive full credit for a future cruise.
When the ship departed, passengers were told that for safety's sake, the Golden Princess would sail directly to Barcelona, skipping scheduled stops in Kusadasi. Athens, Venice, Florence, Naples and Monaco.
"While at sea, we kept noticing what looked like air force jets patrolling the area. It may have been a coincidence, but it was almost as if we had an escort all the way to Barcelona. There had been police boats in port keeping watch over the ship to prevent any unauthorized boats from getting too close. Even though we were technically a big white floating target, we never really felt like we were in any danger," Kathy said.
While there were some disgruntled passengers, Kathy Evans isn't one of them.
"Three days later, we arrived in Barcelona. Princess arranged for special excursions while we were there. We had five wonderful days to see all of the sights of Barcelona that we would have otherwise missed. I can't tell you how wonderful Princess was throughout this trip. They did everything they could to ensure our safety as well as provide us with first class accommodations, service, food and entertainment," Kathy said.
The lesson for fence-sitting future cruisers: If you hesitate to travel because you are afraid that unforeseen events might put you in jeopardy, think again. Cruise executives and their security staffs have contingency plans in place for almost everything, and the experience of September 11 proved that they are ready to react quickly during emergencies, not only to protect passenger safety but also to minimize the disruption of the passengers' cruise experience.