Cruise Ship Bill of Rights

| 3.18.13

The facts, your rights and advice if your ship suffers a major system failure.

The Dream sits in St Martin the morning after the cruise was canceled

Saturday, Carnival came out with a follow-up statement regarding the state of the cruise line and Carnival Dream is particular. It read:

We would like to share an update with you regarding the status of Carnival Dream, Legend and Elation and to answer your questions and clarify many misperceptions that are being driven by confusing and, in many cases, inaccurate media coverage. We would also like to update you on the status of our ongoing internal review in the wake of the Carnival Triumph incident.

Carnival Dream

As of this evening, we will have nearly completed the process of flying all guests from St. Maarten to either Orlando or their final destination via a combination of 21 charter flights and multiple commercial air flights. Additionally, we are providing some 600 hotel rooms in Orlando as needed based on travel plans, along with all motor coach transportation needs. Once all guests have left the ship, Carnival Dream will make preparations to sail back to Port Canaveral with the crew on board and we expect to sail on Sunday.

The ship's power plant, propulsion and hotel systems are fully operational. Aside from some periodic interruptions to restroom and elevator service for a few hours Tuesday night, at no time have any of the ship's systems and services not been functional. One public restroom was taken offline for cleaning Tuesday evening, but otherwise there were no issues with sanitation functionality or cleanliness on the vessel. Reports to the contrary are completely false.

We have had permission from all necessary regulatory authorities to depart from St. Maarten and sail to Port Canaveral since earlier this week. However, it was our decision not to sail with guests on board without a functioning back-up emergency generator. Upon arrival in Port Canaveral early next week, we will install a replacement emergency generator, followed by the appropriate inspections and approvals to operate our next scheduled voyage on Saturday, March 23rd.

Carnival Legend

Carnival Legend is experiencing a technical issue with the ship's propulsion system which is having a minor effect on the ship's maximum speed which is being reduced by a few nautical miles per hour versus normal capacity. The ship's safety systems, steering and all hotel services are functioning normally and the ship, which has been achieving speeds of 19 knots, is scheduled to arrive in Tampa on time tomorrow morning.

On Sunday afternoon, Carnival Legend is expected to depart on schedule while technicians continue to make progress on the repairs. The ship is expected to operate its normal itinerary with the exception of one port - Grand Cayman - which is being replaced by Costa Maya. Any guests wishing not to proceed based on the change to one port of call have been given the option of cancelling and receiving a full refund.

Carnival Elation

At no time has the Carnival Elation been under tow or required the assistance of a tug boat. The ship continues to operate its normally scheduled itineraries. The ship is experiencing a minor technical issue with the steering function of one of its two redundant Azipod propulsion units and the tug that is trailing the ship while it travels on the Mississippi River is purely a precautionary measure. The ship is scheduled to return on time from its current voyage on Monday. Repairs are expected to be fully completed prior to the ship's departure for its next cruiseon Monday afternoon.

Our Commitment to Safety and Security

We would like to sincerely apologize to our guests for the disruption to their vacation plans as a result of these occurrences. The cause of each one is unrelated although we take each of them very seriously. As always, the safety of our guests and crew is our foremost priority. Carnival Cruise Lines carries some 4.5 million passengers a year and operates thousands of cruises without incident. Our historical safety record is outstanding. We have comprehensive maintenance programs in place that meet or exceed all regulatory standards and requirements.

We are committed to learning from any incident that may occur on one of our vessels to apply lessons learned and prevent future occurrences. We are presently conducting a comprehensive fleet-wide review that encompasses multiple operational areas, systems and training. We have assembled an expert team from across the company, as well as a variety of outside experts to complete the assessment. We expect to make an announcement early next week on the initial steps of our implementation program based on the results of our review. In the meantime, we are confident that we will continue to provide our guests with a safe, fun and memorable vacation experience and look forward to welcoming them on board.

On Sunday, Senator Charles Schumer of New York called on the cruise ship industry to adopt a "bill of rights" to guarantee passengers certain protections while aboard their ships.

The Democrat said, "Cruise ships, in large part operating outside the bounds of United States enforcement, have become the wild west of the travel industry, and it's time to rein them in before anyone else gets hurt," said Schumer. "This bill of rights, based on work we've done with the airline industry, will ensure that passengers aren't forced to live in third world conditions or put their lives at risk when they go on vacation." he'll ask industry leaders to voluntarily adopt the guidelines including guarantees that ships have sanitary conditions, back-up power, and medical staff.

Schumer's plan would also include the right to a full refund if a trip is abruptly canceled due to mechanical problems. In the past two months at least three ships carrying US passengers experienced problems, including power failures.

The senator is also calling on the secretary of state to negotiate with countries that host cruise ships to adopt the bill of rights.

Our Report on Cruise Ship Safety

The Carnival Dream is an instance where the cruise line chose not risk taking passengers out to sea with a ship with a faulty back-up generator. This was a good decision by Carnival, although one that cost them a certain amount of credibility and money. The following week's cruise was also cancelled.

It is hard to say what would have happened if Carnival had just taken the passengers back home, chances are it could have been a non-eventful cruise, but Carnivel chose to err on the side of caution.

The reason I say that is that we know that cruise lines often delay major repairs for a time when a ship is scheduled for regular maintenance. This actually makes sense, cruise ships are unique in the sense that if a ship needs extensive maintenance, but is still working, it makes more sense to keep it in operation rather than cancel sold cruises.

When a ship requires an unscheduled repair is more than an inconvenience; it's a logistic nightmare for the thousands of people who have cruises booked during those weeks. They have already taken time off work, paid for the cruise and the airfare, booked hotels and arranged for house sitters. Cruise lines try very hard to keep a ship running until its scheduled maintenance period. If it develops a problem in the meantime they assess the options and shoot for the least inconvenience for the greatest number of people. A hobbled ship may miss a port, but it's a smaller inconvenience than cancelling entire cruises.

When "random events" start to happen with palpable frequency, one wonders about the root cause. Last month the Carnival Triumph went dead in the water after an engine room fire and was towed for 72 hours from the Gulf of Mexico to Mobile, AB. Yesterday another Carnival cruise ship, the Carnival Dream, reported an engine problem and subsequently canceled the cruise in progress. Fortunately, the ship was sitting in port at St. Martin in the Eastern Caribbean.

Dream was scheduled to set sail at 4:30 p.m., Wednesday, to return to its home port, Port Canaveral, Florida. At 5:30 the ship was still docked when an announcement about testing the electrical system was made. Power went out shipwide but was soon restored. About 10:00 p.m. the same sequence of events occurred. Some of the toilets overflowed in a lower level public bathroom. Of course, certain news channels reinstated the "sewage on the floor" headlines from last month's Triumph disaster.

By the wee hours all onboard systems were fully functional again, but the ship was still in port, which had many passengers wondering. It wasn't until 10:45, Thursday morning, that the passengers were told a charter flight was coming to return them to Orlando, the airport for Port Canaveral. These guests will all receive a refund equal to three days of the cruise, 50-percent off a future cruise and reimbursement for any non-refundable travel purchases.

What is the Problem Here?

These events are not a coincidence. Just two days earlier at the largest annual conference in the cruise industry, "Cruise Shipping Miami," Carnival CEO, Gerry Cahill made a H1 public declaration about plans to thoroughly test and fix the electrical systems on all of its ships.

Importantly, cruise ships are floating power plants fully dependent on their electricity generators for power to the propellers, toilets, plumbing, food storage, air conditioning, lights and more. A cruise ship with no power is but a large bobbing cork, dead in the water.

Not surprisingly, there is nothing unusual about power problems on the hundreds of cruise ships in service worldwide. One web site,, logged seventeen incidents of various degrees of severity in 2011 alone. In most cases the ship was able to restore power, or managed to complete the cruise with only partial power; the worst consequence being a missed port of call.

How Cruise Ship Maintenance Affects You

Cruise ships are designed to run non-stop for years at a time and real maintenance usually means taking it out of service for weeks, so scheduled maintenance is always planned years in advance, so no cruises need to be cancelled, and as much work as possible can be planned and completed.

But it is less than ideal to be on a ship that is missing ports of call, even though in most cases you will receive some compensation from the cruise line when it happens. So it is better to book a different ship.

How do you know if a ship is having propulsion or other problems? I asked Michael McGarry, Senior Vice President of Public Affairs for CLIA ( the "Cruise Lines Industry Association," a group dedicated to assisting the cruise industry in government affairs and educating the public) if there was a place to research cruise ships and he told me, "The U.S. Coast Guard keeps records of their examinations on all ships that operate out of US ports, including records on cruise ships." It is called the USCG Cruise Ship National Center of Expertise

One can also take the opposite approach of picking a new ship or one that has just been refurbished. When a ship completes an extensive scheduled maintenance the line makes significant improvements - adding new decor, restaurants, entertainment, suites, etc. This news is always written up in press releases which one can find on any cruise line web site. A newly refurbished ship should not suffer any technical problems. Just one caveat; the "shakedown cruise" of a new, or newly upgraded ship, can sometimes have some glitches, so it is best to wait a few months to make sure the wrinkles are worked out.

If you already have a ship picked out, but you want to check on its conditions, your best bet is to Google the name of the ship along with the words "propulsion," "missed port," "problems," etc. For example, if you Google "Carnival Liberty propulsion problems" you get a Feb. 2012 post from CruiseMates that says "I am currently aboard the Carnival Liberty and it is experiencing a propulsion problem with one prop." In fact, the same search result mentions four other Carnival ships that have had propulsion problems over the last few years.

Passenger Rights for Cruise Ships

While there have been a number of congressional hearings about the cruise industry in the last eight years, and even a law called the "Cruise Safety Act of 2012" passed last year, there is no specific charter delineating "passenger rights" for cruisers. In fact, compensation for a cruise gone bad is almost always at the discretion of the cruise line, depending on what they feel is fair. According to McGarry, "As with other business-to-consumer industries, refunds are handled on a case-by-case basis and are determined by the circumstances at hand."

For example, many ports of call charge a "head tax" to the cruise line for every passenger it brings. Those are, of course, included in the cruise fare. So if a ship misses a port the line will surely refund those specific port fees. These fees are usually less than $50, so they are taken off of your onboard charges.

When it comes to suing a cruise line; the problem is centuries-old maritime law which in most cases protects the merchant and not the "souls" onboard. For example, it is very hard to sue a cruise line at all. The cruise ticket mandates that any civil legal action must be filed in the state where the line is incorporated (Florida, California, Washington State) and they insist on arbitration first.

Secondly, maritime law limits liability for the merchant, even in cases of death, to what the deceased would have earned in his lifetime had he not died. There are no punitive damages allowed, and compensation can only go to the immediate family. In the famous "Honeymoon cruise" case where the groom disappeared the bride settled with Royal Caribbean, making it impossible for his parents to sue the cruise line.

James Walker is an outspoken and candid maritime attorney who has represented some of the highest profile cruise plaintiffs in history. Walker was one of the few maritime attorneys to notify Triumph cruisers (mostly through his very active twitter feed) that he did not see a case to sue the cruise line due to no real negligence or pain and suffering.

What if This Happens to You?

As far as your legal rights, Michael McGarry answered this question.

Why should passengers expect if their ship has to be towed?

Passengers can expect to receive essential needs and services while a ship is towed to port and to be provided focused attention from the crew on their comfort and care.

Taking it a step further, if you are unfortunate enough to be stuck on "dead ship" here is my advice:

A ship that is "dead in the water" is a dangerous situation, but manageable. For example, the Costa Concordia was dead in the water after it hit the rock that tore a hole in its side. That incident could have developed many different ways, but the ship eventually drifted to land and tipped over. It is conceivable that the same could happen to any ship "dead in the water" because with just wind and currents alone large cruise ships can build up a great deal of momentum.

However, Concordia had a huge hole and was quickly taking on water. The officers onboard were seemingly panicked and never dropped the anchor even when they were over reefs that could have held the ship so it would not hit land. They chose to wait because the ship was sinking and they apparently hoped it would drift over land shallow enough that the ship could sink but not fully submerge, but Concordia hit an underwater reef anyway.

But a regular ship "dead in the water" could and would drop anchor before it hit land. Cruise ship anchors are completely gravity controlled (no electric power needed). Navigators have charts and would know when to drop - and even if they were off, eventually a hanging anchor will catch. So, the chance that a drifting ship will beach is very small.

What about that "list," the tendency of a ship to lean to one side?

I would not worry one iota. Have you ever seen a rubber ducky turn over? It can't be done as long as it is intact even in the roughest water. This is because is it designed to have enough buoyancy to keep it afloat, and enough weight at the very bottom to always keep it upright.

Like airplanes, cruise ship designers know all about the lightest and H2est materials. Most of the heavy steel weight is in the keel; a round slab of solid steel more the two football fields long. Modern ships are so stable they can stand upon their keels on land and not tip over. It is quite a sight to see a cruise ship out of water, standing upright on its keel with no outside support.

The only reason for the list on Triumph is the fact that a "dead ship" is like a large sail at sea. The wind and currents will cause it to lean to one side, but it will never tip over. The only way a ship can sink is if it is "breached," meaning enough water somehow gets inside the hull to overcome the natural buoyancy in the design.

In my opinion, the biggest danger on a "dead ship" comes from the passengers you don't know. I would be very careful about my possessions and personal safety. With no power people leave their cabin doors open for ventilation. If you do this be sure to hide your jewelry, money and important papers first. Also keep track of your children.

There was a big difference in the way the passengers acted during the Carnival Splendor incident versus the Carnival Triumph. On Splendor people remained calm, so the cruise line continued to give them free drinks, etc. On Triumph, one afternoon of open bar only made the situation worse, leading to the decision not to make alcohol available at all.

Getting Back to Carnival Dream

Why is Carnival flying passengers home from St. Martin in this incident, but chose to tow passengers on Carnival Triumph to Mobile, Alabama? No doubt, Carnival learned a valuable lesson from the recent Carnival Triumph disaster; that they can't depend on all passengers to always do the right thing. There were reports of thefts during the blackout while people were sleeping up on deck.

There were also people who were just grumpy and/or felt helpless. I asked Michael McGarry from CLIA if the crew members are specially trained to handle people like this and he replied:

Yes, crew members are trained to assist passengers by providing comfort and care in the unlikely event of an incident. The very positive and complimentary comments from passengers onboard the Triumph are evidence of the professionalism and great degree of care that crew provide to passengers.

There is also a maritime maxim that says "the ship as the lifeboat" is the surest and safest way to return a large population to safe harbor, and it is true; with both Splendor and Triumph not a single soul was injured. Michael McGarry from CLIA put it this way:

Why do they keep people on the ship when it is "dead in the water?"

In the unlikely event of a cruise ship with a loss of main power at sea, the safest place for passengers is typically to remain on the ship while it is brought into port. Moving passengers from a ship at sea to another ship on the open sea may, absent an overriding medical emergency or other compelling safety reason, presents risks that can be avoided by not moving the passengers. The ship's captain decides whether to disembark passengers at sea.

But there were subsequent surprises.

First was the drift factor; both ships drifted further away from the tugs trying to steam to their rescue. That added a full day to the Triumph rescue effort. Second was the problem of keeping certain passengers from acting out.

One reason they did not tow Triumph to Progresso, Mexico , was the fact that many passengers did not have passports. It is legal to take a roundtrip Caribbean cruise without a passport, but it is not legal to arrive in the U.S. by air without a passport. They had 900 people on Triumph with no passports, which affected the decision to tow the ship to Alabama.

Significantly, this time Carnival is flying passengers back from a foreign port. Carnival found a way to work with St. Maarten authorities and U.S. immigration to allow the people on Dream who do not have passports to fly home from the island.

So - we see at least one solid lesson has already been learned from Triumph - that it is better to get passengers to the nearest port and let them fly home than it is to worry about people without passports.

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