Domestic river cruise lines plan June return

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American Queen Steamboat Company CEO John Waggoner says he hopes to launch the American Duchess on the Mississippi on June 22.
American Queen Steamboat Company CEO John Waggoner says he hopes to launch the American Duchess on the Mississippi on June 22.

While European river cruise operators remain largely in wait-and-see mode about when the Covid-19 pandemic will ease enough to open their season to international travelers, domestic cruise lines are preparing to resume sailing in June.

American Queen Steamboat Company CEO John Waggoner says he is hoping to launch the American Empress in the Pacific Northwest on June 21, followed by the American Duchess on the Mississippi on June 22. The company also plans to open its Great Lakes season with the Victory 1 on July 5.

It’s a scaled opening, Waggoner said, that enables it to launch one ship in each of its current markets while meeting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s rule prohibiting ships with more than 250 people from sailing from U.S. ports before the end of July.

“The American Duchess is really an easy one for us,” he said. “It only carries 166 passengers and 70 crew,” he said.  The Empress, he said, carries 220 passengers, so it will initially sail under capacity.

The company’s flagship, the American Queen, is too large to launch initially, he said, with a passenger capacity of 420. The company is also assessing when it might be able to christen and launch its new river ship, the American Countess, which can hold 250 passengers and was initially scheduled to sail in April.

“Like our president said, I think this is more like a dimmer light switch, not like a regular light switch. You don’t just flip it on. You turn it on slow.”

Likewise, American Cruise Lines CEO Charles B. Robertson says his company is building out an operational plan to resume at least some sailings in June. ACL’s sailings are currently suspended through June 14.

Robertson did not elaborate on how many of the company’s 12 river and coastal ships might launch initially.

Waggoner said American Queen Steamboat Company had “written up a whole manual that we submitted to the FDA that follows CDC requirements.”

The new procedures include preboarding screenings and temperature checks, ionizer systems to purify cabins on a daily basis, thermal imaging that can scan and log the temperatures of guests every time they swipe their cards to get on and off the boat,  elevated housekeeping protocols, limiting the number of guests dining or watching shows at one time and a lot more hand-washing stations around the boat.

Robertson said American Cruise Lines is developing a similar plan.

“It’s going to include everything from dropping occupancy to sanitation protocols to providing secondary venues to further reduce capacity in the dining rooms and how to do much smaller group tours,” he said. 

European river operators are also expecting a scaled start to their season under a host of operational changes.

Most have suspended operations until at least July 1. Both Avalon and AmaWaterways said they are currently assessing their July plans.

“At the end of next week, we will decide if we keep our starting date of July 1 or move the start of the season to August,” said Rudi Schreiner, president and co-founder of AmaWaterays.  “European river cruise operators are hoping to start as early as late June but the question will be if North Americans will be able to travel to Europe, and 95% of our guests are from the USA or Canada. We also don’t have too many bookings left for July cruises who haven’t yet moved to a future cruise date.”
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Correction: This report corrected the expected relaunch dates of American Queen Steamboat Company ships.

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