Cruisers booked on Triumph forced to change their plans

By Tom Stieghorst
As engineers assessed repairs to the Carnival Triumph following its engine-room fire, tens of thousands of passengers booked on Triumph cruises in the next two months found themselves revising vacation plans.

Carnival Cruise Lines canceled all sailings of the stricken ship through at least April 13, a total of 14 cruises in all.

There might be few alternatives for passengers on some cruises, especially those traveling during spring break. And many customers from Texas and surrounding drive-market states have no short-cruise alternatives to the Triumph’s four- and five-night cruises. The closest alternative for a short cruise departs from New Orleans.

“If they’re looking to sail out of Galveston, the only alternatives are seven-night itineraries,” said Elena Pelsinger, an agent at Travel Leaders in Houston. “The option is to pay more money.”

Carnival has offered guests on canceled sailings a full refund and a credit toward a future cruise. It said commissions already earned by travel agents would be protected.

Pelsinger has already started contacting clients who were scheduled to sail in the next eight weeks. Most had not decided what they wanted to do.

Gloria Currie, a Cruise Holidays agent in Southlake, Texas, said she had a family with three cabins booked on Carnival Triumph’s March 7 sailing. They are scrambling to find another destination they want to visit, she said. “They’re not willing to do another cruise.”

Another client with reservations in June called to inquire if the Carnival Triumph will be repaired in time. “They were a little concerned,” she said.

Carnival is in the early stages of surveying damage to the Triumph and could cancel additional sailings if it is worse than feared.

In 2010, Carnival had an engine room fire on the Carnival Splendor off Mexico’s Pacific coast. Like Triumph, the fire disabled propulsion and the ship had to be towed to port. That repair took about three months to complete and cost Carnival $65 million.

The Splendor’s fire was caused by a catastrophic failure of one of the ship’s diesel engines. Although the exact cause of the Triumph fire has yet to be made public, Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill said at a press conference this week that it was not the same cause as on the Splendor.

A Coast Guard investigation of the Splendor fire determined that the ship’s carbon dioxide fire suppression system did not function automatically, enabling the fire to burn longer before it was extinguished and causing severe damage to electrical switchboards and cables.

On the Triumph, Carnival said the automatic fire extinguishing systems activated. But Carnival has not disclosed how long the fire burned before it was put out.

When the Triumph arrived at Mobile, Ala., it had been operating five full days with only emergency power. The ship’s 3,143 passengers had only cold showers, limited hot meals, limited access to working toilets and no air conditioning.

Many guests reported through family on shore that the ship smelled bad. That led to tough media coverage that put Carnival in a bad light for the better part of a week.

Cahill acknowledged conditions were “very, very challenging,” and passengers were offered $500 cash in addition to other compensation.

Travel agents were divided about whether Carnival’s image would suffer a lasting blow.

“I’m sure Carnival is doing everything in its power to get the ship back and make the people safe,” said Beth Leonardt, an agent with Avoya Travel/American Express in Houston. “I feel like they did everything they possibly could.”

Currie of Cruise Holidays followed developments closely. She was managing a group booking of 54 bank supervisors on the Feb. 7 Triumph sailing to do training seminars.

Asked if publicity about the Triumph cruise would hurt Carnival’s reputation, Currie said, “I don’t see how it cannot.”

Currie compared the reports about conditions on the ships to stories about passenger planes stuck for hours on the tarmac.

“What they’re saying [in the media] and what we’re hearing from friends and relatives are two different stories,” Currie said. “I’m worried if [the media is] reporting what’s really going on.”

Follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly.
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