When Does a New Ship Start to Age?

| December 5, 2007
Wear-and-tear accumulates quickly on vessels used by thousands of passengers each week.

Ironically, the old wisdom was that you should wait a year to take a new ship because it takes that long to work out the kinks. That was true ten years ago when technology was changing even more rapidly, but these days ships come right out of the shipyard with excellent systems and well-trained service people in place to operate them. Today, the newer ships are the ones most likely to please, while the older ones are the ones that often disappoint.

I often hear cruisers refer to ships built only four or five years ago as "old ships." A cruise ship is built for a 30-year life span on average, but many people seem to think that if it isn't brand new, it is "old." Is it the society we live in, driven by technology and up-to-the-minute news, polls and ratings? Or do ships really start to show their age within three or four years?

How old is your car? Mine was built in 1999, but it"s a "classic" that runs great, looks new and has never had a problem, I still think of it as new. On the other hand, I know people who lease their cars and trade them in every year. They also get a new cell phone every six months. I think a good percentage of people fall into this category.

So when does a cruise ship start to become "old"? It depends on your perception, but it also depends on the ship. The truth is, some ships are "classics" and never seem to grow old. But many that are only a few years old already feel sadly outdated if you look closely at the details.

That New Car Smell Does a new ship have that "new car smell"? Not really, because car manufacturers are known to spray that new car smell into vehicles coming off the assembly line. And if it starts to fade, the dealers can give it a fresh spritz. The smell is a combination of clean leather and steel.

New ships don't smell like leather and steel, but they should smell good if there are no lingering bad odors. But it often takes only a few years for a lingering odor to become entrenched in a ship. After all, they do cook fish, garlic and onions all the time. They set out buffets in public rooms and deliver room service meals throughout the ship. It is only a matter of time before these smells get into the drapes and furniture.

I just returned from a ship where someone had dropped a room service meal on the hallway carpet. Before anyone could vacuum it up, most of it was already ground into the fabric. Yech, you say. I agree.

Upholstery and carpeting, especially where there is substantial human contact, starts to wear in just a few years. Those vividly colored cushions start to fade unevenly. They are subjected to spills, fraying, tears and children running dirty fingers all over them. Carpets lose their nap and start to come unhooked near thresholds. Chairs and rugs that get a lot of partial sunlight develop "tan lines".

In the cabins -- well let's be frank: People sit on every piece of furniture in every state of dress and undress, and body odors rub into the fabrics when people come in from tropical ports sweaty and wearing skimpy clothes. They can't all shower immediately.

And ship toilets? These days they are all of the vacuum variety. They don't swoosh water along all of the interior surfaces with every flush. In fact, there is just about an inch of water in the bottom of any toilet and I believe it is there just for looks. Yes, they clean them all regularly with antibacterial sprays, but we all know that smell some cruise ship toilets take on. It isn't as bad as an airplane or camper where waste is stored in chemical tanks, but germs and odors build up, and many ship toilets have a certain "air" about them.

Some picky people now bring Fabreze or Lysol with them on ships. Certainly, you should ask your room steward to spray down anything that doesn't smell right to you.

Laundry Every ship gets brand new linens when it is launched, but how often are they replaced? You can tell a lot about a ship just by looking at the towels. Any towel on a ship that is a few years old has probably been laundered hundreds of times. It quickly loses its soft texture and starts to feel more like sandpaper. And once a towel gets that way, little things like body hair tend to stick to them even through the wash and dry cycle.

It is very difficult to wash a pillow. All you can really launder is the pillowcase, and those are porous. If you get a pillow that smells bad keep requesting new ones until you get one you can live with. If you are very picky, bring a water-resistant hypoallergenic pillow case of your own and use it under the ship's pillowcase.

Mattresses are a different story. I have seen one cruise line that actually vacuums the mattress between passengers; Silversea (managed by V.Ships, which also manages Regent and Seabourn). The mass-market lines do use thick mattress pads, however, which are made to be laundered and changed regularly.

Fortunately, ships do upgrade their linens fairly often. When a cruise line upgrades its linens and bedding, as Holland America did recently with the "Signature of Excellence" program, it is complicated and expensive. Holland America planned to spend $250 million on that upgrade, but in the end it cost more like $450,000,000.

Carnival's new CEO, Gerry Cahill, pointed out that the recent upgrades to all the Fantasy-class ships were projected to cost $250 million but also ended up being more like $450 million. They now offer eight-inch spring mattresses, hypoallergenic down duvets, high-quality sheets and satin/cotton blend duvet covers and pillow cases. Of course not all of that money went to linens, but such items are not inexpensive.

Planning Ahead -- Technology Old technology is a great example of the kinds of things that make a ship feel old.

The Fantasy-class upgrades include exchanging the old cathode ray tube TV sets with flat-panel HDTVs in every cabin. Considering you can buy an old-fashioned 15-inch color TV in any K-Mart for under $100 now, that is if they even carry them anymore, that is a pretty logical upgrade to make. But Royal Caribbean's Mariner of the Seas, built less than four years ago, still has these old fashioned TVs in every cabin, taking up lots of space and offering an atrocious viewing angle from the bed.

When things like this are so easy to update on a ship, it is hard to understand why a cruise line would delay in making changes, but most upgrades are scheduled to happen all at once, and so simple upgrades get pushed back to be done at the same time as the more complicated refurbishments that require down time in the ship's sailing schedule.

It is a lot harder to upgrade a ship than to build the technology into it in the first place, because everything is so tightly engineered. Open up a cruise ship wall and you see part of the ship's thousands of miles of cable. There are audio, video, phone, electricity and data cables. They sit alongside the plumbing and air conditioning. New technology is obviously more easily provided when the ship is a skeleton, but the ships' superstructures are built to last for decades. The bottom line is it is complicated to upgrade technology on an old ship when it involves getting inside the walls.

Ships seem to age quickly because technology is constantly changing. The newest ships are designed with the latest technology built in, but much of this technology was not mature just a few years ago. (It takes about two years to design and build a ship.) The new Carnival ships, for example, have bow-to-stern wireless Internet access. But on some "older" ships, built just a few years before, wireless broadband was a new concept, so you have to carry your laptop to a few later added "hot spots" .

Some ships have only rudimentary Internet systems, and the ships' internal computer network is even worse. It might seem easy to put up an extra satellite connection (or other complicated voice/data modem-type devices I could refer to here) to double the Internet bandwidth, but the ship's internal wiring is so slow that making the end connection faster wouldn't even help. You would still have the antiquated internal network of computers that are also using the same Internet connection slowing everything down.

Complicating the issue, in the last few years cruise lines have started adding Internet features such as shore excursion bookings and spa appointments through their web sites. Guess how that information gets forwarded to the ship? Through the ship's Internet connection. These days, most bandwidth previously used for Internet cafes is now used by the ship's management. Many ships use the Internet connections for their computers at the front desk, so if a passenger orders a cake at the reception desk, the information is recorded in a master database in Miami. When the ship loses the Internet satellite, the passenger services desk suffers as much as the Internet cafe.

The point of all this is that new ships use systems that were built into those ships, while older ships are using older systems modified to work with newer technology. Anytime you do that, you slow the system down, which slows the crew down.

Service is a Factor In the cruise business, the ship is referred to as the "hardware," while the people and service procedures onboard are referred to as the "software". Can a ship's "software" wear out or become dated like the hardware? Absolutely -- software suffers as the hardware suffers.

When a brand new ship comes online, the cruise line will send many of its best management people to staff it. The more important the new ship -- e.g., if it is the first of a new class -- the more this is true.

On the other hand, if a ship is a "sister ship" duplicate of another ship, then it gets little or no special attention. And then imagine the fifth copy of a previous design after it gets to be four or five years old. Newer ships get to sail the most exciting itineraries, but these older ships are placed in less important home ports and do the same voyages over and over. A boring, repetitive itinerary leads to crew ennui quickly.

These aging duplicate ships tend to have staff people who would be on newer, better ships if they were better performers. But the average workers do not rise to the top. They may feel better about working on a ship that the home office is not watching on a daily basis. After years on the job, they know how to make their jobs as easy as possible.

Putting these less than fully committed workers on a ship with older technology only complicates the matter. When the networks, vacuums, dishwashers, plumbing, phones and other crucial systems start to break down, it slows the whole crew down. This affects the overall crew morale because their jobs are harder.

At this point, it is up to the management to bolster the spirit of the crew and get them to work harder at the same time. This crucial juncture seems to be what makes or breaks a ship.

At this point, a captain or hotel manager who is not vigilant is the worst thing for an aging ship -- they may let maintenance slip, or if they see crewmembers doing things improperly, they won't correct them unless someone complains. After all, taking action means confrontation with the crew, which only takes crew morale even lower. In the worst case, the entire ship has an unspoken agreement that no one interferes with anyone else and the mid-level managers have tacit permission to do the minimum amount of work required.

The result is a ship where passenger service suffers because no staff member will criticize or correct another. The hard worker is ostracized because he makes the rest of the staff look bad. Excuses like "I'm sorry, that isn't my department" become commonplace, or staff people give passengers wrong information because upper management did not communicate the proper information or procedures to them.

Eventually, passengers will just give up on trying to get their problem solved and walk away frustrated or disappointed. On a broken ship that is what the staff wants. Passengers are powerless to complain if they can't find anyone who cares and writing letters after the fact does little good. This is tough for CruiseMates as well, because we always tell people that the best time to fix a problem is when it occurs -- but if you can't find a staff member who cares, you can't fix it.

How to Fix Broken Software If you are ever on a ship where the software is broken and you cannot solve a problem, do not take "no" for an answer. You may be talking to the wrong person. Be prepared to take your question to someone else, in the same department, a related department, or ask to speak to a higher authority. If a person is honest that they do not know the answer to your question, they should at least advise you on where to go for your answer. The worst case is when they give you misinformation. If you get an answer that something is "impossible," don't believe it until you hear it three times.

If you find a person whom you believe should be able to help you, but they are no help at all, write down their name (from the name tag). Tell this person, "I have a problem, and now it is also your problem because I have your name." If in the end you never get a resolution then use the comment cards to write down your specific complaint and how that person did not help you. Too many complaints and "corporate" will eventually get the message. They will know if there was a systemic problem, or if the crewperson was the problem. It won't help you immediately, but it will in the long run.

And do not fall for the end of the cruise speech where a service person asks you to give him a high rating on the evaluation form -- unless you truly believe he deserves it. Be honest but fair on your evaluation forms. Those forms are there to make your future cruises better. If a ship is "sick" but doesn't show the signs of it to the corporate office, it will not get fixed. Speak up -- tell them what you think.

Summing Up Ironically, the old wisdom was that you should wait a year to take a new ship because it takes that long to work out the kinks. That was true ten years ago when technology was changing even more rapidly, but these days ships come right out of the shipyard with excellent systems and well-trained service people in place to operate them. Today, the newer ships are the ones most likely to please, while the older ones are the ones that often disappoint.

You may have noticed that most CruiseMates group cruises are on brand new ships. We just completed a Thanksgiving group cruise on Carnival Freedom, which arrived in Miami last month. Another group cruise we have scheduled is on the yet-to-debut (December 2008) Celebrity Solstice, touted as one of the most innovative new ships in at least a decade. It certainly is one of the next generation of ships currently under design or construction that will hit the market starting in late 2008. So many elements of the ship's design are new that most of them have not yet even been revealed, and that's exactly why we run are group cruises on these vessels.

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