Industry Focus: Cruise lines seek to emulate airline safety

Cruise lines aren’t blind to the negative publicity that accidents such as the Costa Concordia sinking and Carnival Triumph fire bring, or the damage that they do to the public’s perception of the cruise industry as a safe holiday option.

The cruise industry has shown itself time and again to be a resilient one, able to weather a major global recession, a European debt crisis and several high-profile cruise accidents and incidents in recent years and yet remain the fastest growing sector of the travel market.

However, cruise lines aren’t blind to the negative publicity that accidents such as the Costa Concordia sinking and Carnival Triumph fire bring, or the damage that they do to the public’s perception of the cruise industry as a safe holiday option.

When Costa Concordia, a world-class, modern flagship cruise liner within the Costa Cruises fleet, ran aground and capsized off the coast of Italy in January, 2012, with the loss of 32 lives, many questioned how a 114,000-gross ton, half a billion dollar cruise liner could sink so fast and suffer such chaos trying to evacuate her passengers. Similarly, when the 101,000-gross ton, 3,143-passenger cruise ship Carnival Triumph suffered an engine room fire that left her adrift and helpless for several days, many wondered how the world’s leading cruise brand Carnival Cruises, could let such a thing happen.

Costa Concordia and Carnival Triumph are two names that will go down in history as the two most highly publicized cruise incidents in recent history, perhaps even of the past 100 years. This is because of the nature of media in the modern world, with passengers able to report events aboard ships as they happen via Facebook, Twitter and other mediums, in a way that was never possible before. Images of the squalor aboard Carnival Triumph during her says drifting in the Mexican Gulf will remain on the Internet indefinitely, Carnival Corporation (which owns both the Costa Cruises and Carnival Cruises brands) therefore needed to re-shape the public’s perception of the company.

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They’ve done this by investing heavily in their product, upgrading their fleet and overhauling safety systems onboard. At the same time, however, politicians in the United States, the leading cruise market in the world, have begun to propose legislation on tougher standards for the cruise industry. Safety has therefore become the primary concern of the industry in recent months, and because Carnival Corporation is the largest cruise company (controlling almost half of the global market), when they sneeze the rest of the industry catches a cold.

Carnival Triumph is towed back into port after days drifting at sea

Carnival Triumph is assisted back into port by tugs following an engine room fire that left her drifting at sea for days

Carnival Cruises led the charge, because they were the brand impacted worst by the negative publicity. The cruise line has hired a former navy admiral to oversea their marine operations, a move that was quickly followed by the world’s second-largest cruise line, Royal Caribbean International. Cruise lines are adopting principles and procedures first seen in the aviation industry, which has worked hard over the past three decades to become the safest form of travel in the world, notwithstanding present incidents such as the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 – which are extremely rare.

“We certainly have had a wake-up call over the last couple years,” William Burke, newly-appointed chief maritime officer at Carnival, said during a two-day forum that the National Transportation Safety Board convened in Washington, D.C., to review the cruise industry’s safety protocols. “So what I find is that people are really interested in getting better. And I find that across the board.” Burke joined Carnival in December after 35 years in the US Navy, from which he retired as a vice admiral.

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The Costa Concordia disaster was caused in part by the ship’s deviation from her set course and the captain’s decision to sail closer to the shore than he would usually have done on any other cruise. Crew management on the bridge was also at fault. Crew errors on cruise ships mirror the airline industry’s experience of human error outpacing mechanical and other failures as the root cause of most mishaps in recent decades. This was the case aboard Concordia, but a year after the Concordia disaster, the engine room fire aboard Carnival Triumph brought to light the inadequacy of some fire-suppression systems given the size of today’s cruise ships and forced Carnival to invest USD $700-million in upgrading its firefighting equipment and engine-room designs, which placed vital systems such as generators to close to possible fire points such as fuel lines. Other cruise lines began similar, if less extensive, reviews and changes, part of the problem being that Carnival Triumph is built to a Triumph/Destiny-class design, which is emulated throughout the Carnival Cruises fleet and other brands in the Carnival Corporation, such as Costa Cruises.

The new safety regime under review has a number of components. One of them is called ‘boat operations quality assurance’, which is adopted from the aviation industry’s flight operations protocol most airlines now use to oversee their flights. Another is a ‘no blame’ reporting system, also pioneered by the aviation industry, which is intended to enable crew to identify deviations from protocols and warn of possible hazards without fear of retribution from an overbearing captain. Some cruise lines are also looking into the practicalities of a annual performance check for bridge officers, which would be similar to the line check of pilots performed in most countries whereby an official rides in commercial airline cockpits to examine a crew’s performance on random flights. Bridge data is another component being looking into by larger cruise lines, with systems to track bridge data from each cruise, analysing deviations from normal procedures and why they occurred – the same type of systems airlines began using in the 1980s to increase flight safety. An Emirates Airlines A380 captain that Cruise Arabia & Africa recently spoke to told us that when he deviates even slightly from his intended flight plan, Emirates Airlines knows about it immediately, and requires an explanation when the plane lands. Over time, airlines shared their operations data across the industry and devised best practices—one of the hallmarks of the safety successes.

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Royal Caribbean International is the second-largest cruise line in the world, but also the operators of the world’s two largest cruise ships, the gargantuan Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas, both of which carry more than 6,000 passengers and are more than twice the size of Costa Concordia. In the wake of the Concordia disaster, Royal Caribbean were quick to point out to the industry and the world’s cruising public, that their ships are designed with a risk-based approach aimed at making the ship its own lifeboat in the event of a major accident. According to William Baumgartner, the line’s senior vice president for marine operations, this means that in certain circumstances it will be better to keep passengers aboard the ship, or keep them aboard for as long as possible while help is on the way. Baumgartner joinedRoyal Caribbean in September after retiring from the US Coast Guard as a rear admiral. The size of modern cruise ship’s has alarmed many regulators, especially in the wake of the Concordia sinking, with some asking if modern cruise liners are getting too big to sail. Can so many people be evacuated safely and in a timely manner? Is there a reasonable limit to how large a cruise ship should be?

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The chairman of Royal Caribbean, Richard Fain, recently pointed out in an interview that Oasis-class cruise ships were not designed to be the biggest in the world, that was not the primary goal in their build. Rather, their size became a necessary requirement for the number of experiences and facilities the cruise line wanted to have onboard, in line with their new ‘WOW’ brand philosophy that asks cruise passengers to allow the cruise line to ‘wow’ them with their service and amenities onboard. As a result, Royal Caribbean cruise ships include rock climbing, miniature golf, surf simulators, dodgem cars and aboard Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas there is even a reproduction of New York’s Central Park, which includes 12,000 trees. There is also a zip-line experience across the park atrium and a skydiving wind tunnel on the sun deck.

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“The rock-climbing wall was the dumbest idea I’d ever heard of,” Fain said during an interview on. Until a test aboard one ship demonstrated its immense popularity, because although not everyone uses the wall, everyone likes to watch. Each of Royal Caribbean’s 23 ships now sports such a wall. The extensive menu of onboard activities (the new Quantum Class ships will have bumper cars and a food truck as well as a glass dome that will swing passengers out over the side of the ship) demonstrates the industry’s quest for its virtual holy grail: the first-time cruiser. Most people have never taken a cruise, and a fun time in a bumper car may prompt cruisers to extol the experience to a relative or neighbor, who may then decide to book. But, incidents such as the Concordia disaster and the Carnival Triumph fire will put off many first time cruisers, a reality reflected in the Cruise Satisfaction Guarantee program unveiled by Carnival last year, enabling cruise passengers to get their full fare refunded and transport home paid for if they decide to cancel their cruise within 24-hours of boarding.

It is a vicious cycle, the larger cruise ships get trying to lure first time cruisers, the more complicated the ensuring of safety becomes, and any hint of a lack of safety in the industry will scare off first time cruisers faster than any other factor.

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