Cruise safety revisited after Costa Concordia disaster

By Donna Tunney and Arnie Weissmann
In the aftermath of the Costa Concordia tragedy, CLIA, Congress and two former Costa Cruises executives last week were revisiting assumptions about cruise safety, taking into account the perfect storm of events that led to the loss of life and the harrowing experiences of survivors in the waters off the Tuscany coast.

Meantime, cruise lines took action independently. Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. tightened passenger muster rules for all its brands.

And on Thursday, Carnival Corp., the parent of Costa Cruises and nine other cruise brands, announced a “comprehensive audit and review of all safety and emergency response procedures across all of the company’s cruise lines.”

CLIA called upon the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which sets global standards for ship safety, to undertake a “comprehensive evaluation from the findings” of the accident investigation currently being conducted by Italian authorities.

And in Washington, lawmakers are poised to review safety measures in light of the Concordia accident. Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said his committee would conduct a hearing on the subject.

“The Costa Concordia tragedy is a wakeup call for the United States and international maritime organizations to carefully review and make certain we have in place all appropriate standards to ensure passengers’ safety on cruise ships,” Mica said.

The CLJohn MicaIA announcement was made by the organization’s CEO, Christine Duffy, before introducing a panel at the Passenger Ship Safety Conference currently under way in London.

Tom Allan, a member of the panel and chairman of the Cruise Ship Safety Forum, who has held a number of senior positions in the IMO, said that after the Italian authorities conclude their work, other member states may want to propose international guidelines.

The process may take years, but he said that the industry will likely be proactive and go forward with its own initiatives in a shorter timeframe.

After the panel, which was simulcast to journalists in New York, J. Michael Crye, executive vice president of CLIA who liaises for the organization on regulatory matters, said “The Italians will be the ones who make determinations about what went wrong and what needs to be improved, if anything. The results will be taken to the IMO, where it will be debated and discussed by international experts among the 170 member nations. They will look to see if the treaty needs to be modified, and will take into account any recommendations made.”

CLIA has two seats on the IMO board.

Crye agreed that the lines may move forward on their own. “Each (line) has an affirmative obligation to seek out means to identify and improve [safety],” he said. “No one in the industry wants to have this type of blot on the cruise industry. We will identify best practices and apply them. It has already begun within each individual cruise line.”

Bruce Nierenberg, who served as president and CEO of Costa Cruises before Carnival Corp. bought a controlling share of the line in 1997, said, “There is a dynamic that is in play here that several senior execs in the business used to discuss 10 to 20 years ago when the ships were really starting to get big. Even the technical and maritime engineering experts at the companies where I worked were concerned that regardless of the safety equipment onboard and the modern technology of the ship, the industry was beginning to build ships that were too big to be really safe in emergencies.”

“The industry, in its drive for profits has not been considering enough of the problems that can be created by enclosing thousands of people in a confined space, by expecting to evacuate upwards of 6,000 to 8,000 passengers in the largest ships, and by ignoring the basic human instinct to panic in such a situation,” he said.

The Concordia was carrying 3,200 passengers and about 1,000 crew. There were 26 nationalities represented on the ship.

Panelists in London felt that a ship’s size did not make it inherently less safe. Both Allan and Captain William Wright, senior vice president of marine operations for Royal Caribbean International, suggested that larger ships might actually have their own benefits in an emergency situation.

Bigger ships, Allan said, were designed to include more flexibility in the subdivision of safety options and in some ways provide a “bigger” and “better” platform to survive.

“The safety standards are no different,” he said. “Smaller ships have certain advantages over larger, and vice versa.”

Wright added that as ships grow larger, the evacuation routes and lifeboats are scaled accordingly.

Also on the topic of large ships, panelist Vice Admiral Alan Massey, CEO of the U.K.’s Maritime and Coast Guard Agency, said “we are satisfied ... that we’re in touch with what the industry is doing and the risks associated with it. Safety standards have kept pace.”

Bruce NierenbergNierenberg said, “There will be regulation changes, I’m sure, because of this accident, in terms of crew language requirements and training. And I’m sure it will become law that lifeboat drills have to take place before the ship leaves the harbor.”

In London, Wright said that “the vast majority” of muster drills occur before sailing. He noted that while the Concordia’s actions were “in keeping with regulations,” the practice will come under scrutiny.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard’s Cruise Ship National Center of Expertise, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) requires an evacuation drill within 24 hours of port departure.

“Each cruise line has its own business practice, and in most cases the drill is held soon after departure,” a spokesman for the center said. “That’s the spirit of the regulation, but we can’t require ships to do that.”

In the case of the Concordia, two embarkation ports were offered to passengers: Barcelona and Cititavecchia, the Italian port about 50 miles from Rome. The nearly 700 people who boarded the ship in Civitavecchia on the day of the accident had not yet participated in a safety drill. Their drill was to have been held the next day.

Nierenberg said it takes time for passengers to become acclimated to a large ship. Expecting them to find their way around almost immediately after boarding — without a muster drill, in the dark and with language barriers between passengers and crew — is a stretch.

Following the Concordia accident, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCCL) directed its fleet — including all ships operated by Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises — to hold passenger muster drills on the day of departure.

Until now, all RCCL vessels have held muster drills 30 to 60 minutes prior to departure on the day of embarkation or turnaround, the company said. But on “rare occasions,” primarily due to very late departure times, the drill could be held to the following morning.

Not anymore.

The Concordia crew had intended to meet the 24-hour rule, with its drill planned for the following day.

Mitch Schlesinger, vice president of sales and marketing at Voyages to Antiquity, agreed that the timing of lifeboat drills in the wake of the Concordia disaster will become an industry issue.

“And,” he added, “there will be other issues tied to that. For example, on some ships it’s now optional to bring a life jacket to a boat drill. People were tripping over the straps, and cruise lines were trying to do this with 3,000 or 4,000 or 5,000 people. Was that new regulation the right thing to do?”

The bottom line, said Schlesinger, an industry veteran who formerly was a marketing vice president at Costa, is that “you need to understand how to put on your life jacket.”

On some large ships, including Royal Caribbean's Oasis-class vessels, passengers report to a designated public area, such as a lounge or a theater, to watch a safety video while a crew member demonstrates how to don a life jacket. On others, passengers still are required to report to their assigned lifeboat station, sometimes wearing their life jacket and sometimes not.

“It will be like the airports after 9/11,” Schlesinger said. “And I think it will happen for the right reasons. It might seen inconvenient, and you might only need them in the rarest of circumstances, but you need to know where to go and what to do.”

Schlesinger also asserted that in the Concordia case, the captain “invited a problem” by taking the ship too close to Giglio.

At the CLIA panel, the captain’s decision to attempt to bring the Concordia closer to shore after a rock tore through the ship’s hull raised the question of whether current thinking that “safe return to port” standards would be reviewed.

(According to Crye, “safe return to port” standards apply to ships built since June 2010. He said that improvements in stability and redundancies of systems has increased the likelihood that it may be safer for a damaged ship to attempt to get to a port rather than deploy lifeboats. He said what procedure to initiate — return to port, deploy lifeboats or go to deep water and initiate counter-flooding — is up to the captain’s discretion.)

The decisions and behavior of the Concordia’s captain, Francesco Schettino, contributed to what Nierenberg referred to as a “perfect storm.”

“It used to be that it took 25 years to get promoted to captain,” he said. “But today, the lines probably are under pressure to accelerate training because there are so many slots to fill.”

Nierenberg added that the Concordia accident also argued for psychological evaluations of ship captains.

Schettino faces multiple charges and is under house arrest in Italy after steering the ship into the rocks and allegedly abandoning the vessel while passengers and crew remained onboard.

“How does a guy like that get to be captain?” Nierenberg wondered.

Perhaps, he suggested, large ships should have more than one captain.

“Now that the big-ship animal has been created, we have to figure out how to deal with it,” he said.

Journalists at the London panel also questioned crew readiness for an emergency, from the captain down to cabin stewards.

Richard Evenhand, managing direct of V.Ships Leisure UK, the world’s largest third-party ship-management firm, said on the panel that the IMO sets standards for seafarers and that competencies are required before they can join a ship. He said there were further “comprehensive packages of training.”

He added that the ability to speak relevant languages was part of the selection process, in reference to some criticism that language played a role in confusion aboard the Concordia.

Wright said that all ships have emergency plans that are reviewed every week, and every member of the crew has a specific duty. For example, there are crew members who have instructions to bring life jackets to muster stations, he said.

Crye noted that “a bartender who is taking muster would not necessarily have the expertise to lower and operate a lifeboat,” but is trained in some aspect of emergency procedure.

In New York, Bud Darr, CLIA’s director of environmental and health programs, observed that “there are specific training standards and requirements applied universally across the maritime world.”

The CLIA panel was questioned about whether there were regulations regarding voyage plans and the discretion that a captain has in straying from the preplanned route.

Wright said that there are standards for “bridge resource management,” and that those require that if one varies from a voyage plan, the change must go through a two-person check to verify its appropriateness. “Not just the captain, but the entire bridge team,” he said.

In London, a journalist asked if the notion of a captain going down with the ship was outdated. Massey said there is no basis in international law for the concept. “Individual companies may have policies, but in the context of law, it’s more myth than reality.”

And women and children first?

“There is a requirement to take specific note of accessibility issues of passengers and accommodate them on a personal basis,” Crye said.

Follow Donna Tunney on Twitter @dttravelweekly. Follow Arnie Weissmann on Twitter @awtravelweekly. 
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