Celebrity Millennium's Alaska season ended

By Tom Stieghorst
After being forced to cancel the remainder of its Alaska sailings this year, Celebrity Cruises plans to repair its malfunctioning Celebrity Millennium at a shipyard in the Bahamas.

The cruise line said it hoped to have the work done in time for a scheduled Sept. 22 Panama Canal transit cruise from San Diego.

The decision follows two consecutive cruises in which the Millennium spent part of what were supposed to have been seven-day sailings in port under repair.

The cause was a mechanical breakdown in the propulsion system that Celebrity concluded could not be fixed on site. As a result, it canceled the remainder of the Millennium's Alaska season, displacing about 8,000 passengers from the four remaining cruises.

The canceled cruises had been scheduled to depart on Aug. 23, Aug. 30, Sept. 6 and Sept. 13.

"We are deeply sorry for this unexpected and disappointing development in our guests' upcoming vacations," Celebrity said in a statement.

While not unheard of, it is unusual for a ship to encounter mechanical problems that require it to be taken out of service for more than a week. The Millennium will go to the Grand Bahamas Shipyard in Freeport for the work.

Upon completion, it is scheduled to return to San Diego, then turn around to transit the Panama Canal again in a repositioning cruise to Fort Lauderdale.

Coming on top of other mechanical problems with cruise ships in recent months, reports about Celebrity's problems with its electrical propulsion system could play into perceptions that cruising is an unreliable vacation.

The cancellations follow negative publicity earlier this year after an engine room fire left the Carnival Triumph without power for four days. Repairs to the fire-damaged ship put the Triumph out of commission for four months, forcing thousands of guests to revise their vacation plans.

The problem afflicting the Millennium first surfaced on Aug. 9, when the ship was several hours late arriving in Seward, Alaska. Once there, engineers attempted repairs, which Celebrity described as "delicate," on a balky electrical propulsion unit, keeping the ship docked for three days.

The Millennium eventually cruised directly to Vancouver, skipping several scheduled port stops in Alaska. On its Aug. 16 cruise, the ship made it as far as Ketchikan, Alaska, before breaking down again.

After attempting more repairs, Celebrity decided to terminate the cruise prematurely and send about 2,000 passengers home, arranging charter flights to Vancouver, Seattle and Anchorage.

Because some guests were still waiting for departures when the Millennium left port for the Bahamas, Celebrity secured the parks and recreation center in Ketchikan as a waiting center.

Passengers on the two impaired sailings received a full refund and a 100% future cruise credit as well as help with hotel and transportation costs, in some cases.

Nevertheless, some expressed frustration about the time lost planning their vacations, the difficulty of getting away from work and corralling family members, and unreimbursed costs such as shore excursions not purchased from Celebrity or canceled pre- and post-cruise.

For the cruises that were canceled before they started, Celebrity is offering full refunds. Passengers on the Aug. 23 cruise received future cruise credits equal to 50% of their ticket price, while those on the other three cruises got vouchers for 25% off the price of a future cruise.

Celebrity's response exceeds the industry's newly adopted passenger bill of rights. It also would appear to exceed anything required by proposals from Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D.-W.Va.) and Chuck Schumer (D.-N.Y.) to tighten federal regulation of cruises regarding passenger rights.

Rockefeller's Cruise Passenger Protection Act of 2013, introduced in July, would give the U.S. Department of Transportation more authority to monitor and investigate consumer complaints about cruises. But nothing in the bill specifically addresses compensation for cruises that are canceled for mechanical problems.

Schumer's idea, which is not yet legislation, includes "the right to a full refund for a trip that is abruptly canceled due to mechanical failures."

UBS Investment Research estimated last week that the decision to abort the rest of the Millennium's Alaska season will shave about $31 million from profits of parent company Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCCL). Last year, RCCL earned $368 million in its fiscal third quarter.

UBS' estimated losses include the costs associated with the Aug. 9 and 16 cruises between Vancouver and Seward but not the cost of repairs, which is covered by insurance.

Follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly.
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