Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) began his final push for tighter regulation of the cruise industry with a hearing that put some of the worst stories about cruising on public display.
Four witnesses painted a picture of cruise line self-interest and incompetence during emergency situations on cruise ships. No industry witnesses were called to rebut their testimony.
The July 23 hearing was in support of Rockefeller’s Cruise Passenger Protection Act, which cruise lines say is burdensome and would lead to higher overall costs that get shifted to cruisers.
Rockefeller is chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which held the hearing.
Rather than try to pass the act on its own, Rockefeller’s political strategy is to fold it into must-pass legislation to authorize U.S. Coast Guard operations for the next two years.
“If you separate this, the Coast Guard bill will pass and the cruise ship bill will get flushed down the toilet,” he said. “My job as chairman is to make sure we don’t play the game that way.”
Rockefeller’s apparent animus toward the cruise industry was evident for much of the hearing. He opened it by saying the industry “continues to deny it has a problem,” has “circled the wagons” and sometimes treats customers “with shocking callousness and disregard.”
“We continue to see the same issues continuing to continue,” he said. “I’m fed up with it. I’m fed up with them trying to stonewall us. Yes, they have lots of money and lobbyists.
“We’re going to win this one,” he said.
Rockefeller bolstered his case for stronger regulation with stories such as Amanda Butler’s, whose mother collapsed last year upon returning from a shore excursion. Butler blamed the cruise line for her mother’s death, which she attributed to an anoxic brain injury.
“My mother died needlessly because the main emergency protocol was not followed or enforced,” she said.
Other witnesses included Laurie Dishman, who testified she was raped on a ship in 2006; Kimberly Ware, a passenger on the Carnival Triumph cruise that lost power because of an engine fire; and Philip Gerson, a Miami attorney who testified that a 15-year-old autistic client was raped.
In a statement, CLIA said that the hearing “presented a distorted picture of an industry that has an exceptional guest care and safety record. “
“It also did not provide a balanced view that would help policy makers and the public better understand the full implications of the Cruise Passenger Protection Act — and why it is not needed,” the statement said.
During the hearing, Rockefeller asserted the bill is needed, based on feedback from several hearings. He has proposed:
• Giving consumers a plain-language summary of the terms in a cruise contract.
• Making the Transportation Department (DOT) the lead regulator over cruise ship consumer protection, as in the airline industry.
• Creating a toll-free hotline for consumer complaints and a standing advisory committee to recommend cruise consumer protection improvements.
• Requiring that all allegations of crime on a cruise ship be made publicly available.
• Mandating video camera placement in public areas and setting rules for archiving video footage.
• Establishing a victim advocate at the DOT who would provide help to crime victims, make sure they’re aware of their rights and facilitate access to appropriate law enforcement.
In its statement, CLIA called Rockefeller’s bill “a solution in search of a problem.”
“The cruise industry is already heavily regulated,” said the statement, which called adding a new layer of federal regulation and bureaucracy, “both unjustified and unnecessary.“
Rockefeller said he called a hearing with those directly affected by cruise ship problems to try to drive home the need for his remedies.
Butler, who is from Columbus, Miss., was in the gangway area of the Carnival Conquest last year when her mother passed out. She said it took 10 minutes for a nurse to arrive, no one performed CPR, and the cardiac defibrillators were locked, as was the ship’s infirmary. She said Carnival put her family off the ship in search of a hospital with little aid.
Carnival Cruise Lines, in a written statement, said the ship’s medical staff responded and the patient was successfully resuscitated and then transferred to a shore-side medical facility.
It said shipboard doctors and nurses carry radios and mobile phones to ensure prompt response to emergencies and that defibrillators are on all Carnival ships in a variety of locations.
Ware provided a personal account of the problems that were publicized on CNN and elsewhere after the Feb. 10, 2013, fire and power outage on the Carnival Triumph.
Carnival noted that everyone returned safely from that cruise, received a full refund, $500 cash, reimbursement of expenses and other compensation. It said Ware “is part of a group of litigants who are partnering with plaintiff’s counsel for the purpose of opportunistic financial gain.”
Only a few of the 24 senators on committee attended the 90-minute hearing, including Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a co-sponsor of Rockefeller’s bill, and Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who wondered if consumers would really look at a DOT website before buying a cruise.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said he thought cruise consumer protections should be considered on their own and not as part of the Coast Guard act.
Strategically, if Rockefeller can get them into the larger bill, which has multiple constituencies, they could be approved by the Senate and then adopted in conference by the House, which already passed a Coast Guard bill without the Rockefeller measures.
It will be the cruise industry swan song for Rockefeller, who retires next January after three decades in Congress. He urged cruise lines to “honestly consider” whether they could improve consumer protections.
“I believe there are steps you can take, and I will continue pushing you to make them,” he said.
Follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly.