Q: My client's family missed their Fort Lauderdale cruise departure because of an airline delay. The family rushed to Key West and tried to board there for the remainder of their weeklong Caribbean cruise, but they were told that they had to pay $300 more per person because of the "Jones Act." As I understand it, that law prohibits foreign cruise lines from carrying passengers between U.S. ports. However, if it is legal to depart from and return to Fort Lauderdale, why would the Jones Act apply to a shortened cruise?
The "Jones Act" refers to a 1920 law sponsored by Sen. Wesley Jones of Washington state; it regulates cargo shipping, so it is not relevant to the cruise business.
The law that the cruise line meant to invoke is the Passenger Vessel Services Act (PVSA) of 1886, which is often confused with the Jones Act. Under the PVSA, "a vessel may not transport passengers between ports or places in the United States ... either directly or via a foreign port, unless the vessel ... is wholly owned by citizens of the United States."
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has issued regulations interpreting what is and is not allowed under the PVSA. According to those regulations, there are two types of common violations of the law:
First, obviously, a foreign-owned ship is not allowed to carry a passenger who embarks in, say, New York, and ends his cruise in, say, Fort Lauderdale.
Second, a foreign-owned ship is not allowed to carry a passenger who embarks in New York, disembarks for the day in, say, Bermuda, and ends his cruise in Fort Lauderdale. This is because an intermediate stop such as Bermuda as well as almost all Caribbean ports and all of Mexico and Canada are so-called "nearby foreign ports," which are the same as intermediate U.S. ports for purposes of the PVSA.
So, foreign-ship cruises that stop only in nearby foreign ports must always begin or end at either the same U.S. point, such as Fort Lauderdale, or begin at a U.S. point, such as Seattle, and end at a foreign point, such as Vancouver.
On the other hand, it is legal for a foreign-owned ship to carry a passenger from New York to, say, Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao in the Southern Caribbean, and then to Fort Lauderdale, as the intermediate points are so-called "distant foreign ports," which make the itinerary no longer prohibited by the PVSA.
In the case of your clients, the cruise line was going to violate the PVSA by transporting them from Key West to nearby foreign ports (such as Cozumel and Grand Cayman) and returning them to Fort Lauderdale. Legally, it would be the same as transporting them directly between Key West and Fort Lauderdale.
Customs fines the cruise lines $300 for each passenger carried in violation of the PVSA, so the line was insisting that the clients reimburse the cruise line for the fine. Under the logic of the law, the line's policy is understandable, even if it is not fair to charge more for a shorter cruise.
However, the fine applies to the cruise line, not the passengers, so the line could waive or discount the fee if it wished to do so. Mark Pestronk is a Washington-based lawyer specializing in travel law. To submit a question for Legal Briefs, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.