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Cruise passenger bill of rights: Is it dead in the water?

@denschaal

Mar 30, 2013 4:00 am

Skift Take

It would be a much more difficult task to bolster passenger rights on board cruise ships than on planes, but the need is no less necessary.

— Dennis Schaal

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Lynn Ratliff  / Reuters

Passengers leave the Carnival Triumph cruise ship after reaching the port of Mobile, Alabama. Lynn Ratliff / Reuters


Airline passengers have certain protections against tarmac delays, but cruise passengers likely won’t see their on-board rights bolstered anytime soon because cruise lines wield all the power and are very resistant to change.

In the wake of recent and well-publicized Carnival Cruise Lines lines problems with the Triumph, Dream, and Legend, which saw passengers living with sewage and other unsanitary conditions for days in the case of the Triumph, Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) issued a press release advocating that foreign-flagged cruise lines voluntarily adopt a “Cruise Ship Passenger Bill of Rights.”

The measure would allow cruise passengers to debark a docked ship if there aren’t adequate provisions, ensure that on-board medical staff is adequately trained, and provide for timely updates about changes to a ship’s itinerary.

There is a ton of opposition to Schumer’s proposal even though many people agree that the cruise lines should be doing much more.

The cruise industry’s stance is basically: We know better and don’t tell us what to do.

The cruise industry trade group, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), favors “industry-initiated policies” over outside pressure.

“CLIA looks forward to reviewing Senator Schumer’s proposed “Passenger Bill of Rights,” the trade group states. “The safety and comfort of passengers are the cruise industry’s top priorities and are fundamental to our business.

“While the industry must adhere to strict international and national regulations, wherever and whenever our ships operate, we also continuously strive through industry-initiated policies and ongoing reviews to improve upon our practices to help ensure the best vacation experience for all or our guests. In this spirit of continuous improvement we appreciate the opportunity to review Senator Schumer’s proposal.”

Even Mark Mogel, who as former research director of FlyersRights.org played an important role in adoption of airline passengers bill of rights provisions, isn’t having any part of government regulation when it comes to enhanced cruise-passenger rights.

“When advocating for an airline passenger’s’ bill of rights in the late 2000’s, I always believed that a market-driven solution would have been the best solution for consumers,” Mogel says. “Unfortunately, at the time, airlines were resistant to change and there wasn’t the intense level of social media that we have today.

“Federal government regulation was necessary even with its unintended consequences. Now, social media is far more effective in influencing corporate best practices and/or driving out bad actors in the cruise and any other travel industry, and political grandstanding and government regulation is the last thing consumers need.”

The airline and cruise ship parallel only goes so far, of course, because although the FAA and DOT have a lot to say about airline operations, cruise ships are foreign-flagged, and once they reach international waters, the International Maritime Organization is the regulatory body, and Schumer and his minions can’t do very much.

The cruise industry has plenty of defenders, and they resent what they believe are the uninformed views of “outsiders” who just don’t understand their sector.

Other voices

Stewart Chiron, who calls himself The Cruise Guy and runs a cruise industry marketing company, says “there is nothing there,” referring to the meat of Schumer’s passenger rights’ proposal, arguing that the cruise lines already exceed the standards that the Senator advocates.

Of course, many people, including avid cruisers on Cruise Critic’s forums, think Schumer is just grandstanding and won’t pursue this very far; others feel there is no need for government intervention, and that regulation would lead to a rise fares.

Still, some cruisers sounding off in the forums support a cruise passenger bill of rights.

Rotterdam: “I think this is a good move to help those that are adversely affected by mishaps/problems associated with taking a cruise holiday.”

Jowahe: “Cruise lines will sail from ports that have the passengers. Most passengers are from U.S. so cruise ships will continue to sail from U.S. ports [if there is new regulation]. I don’t understand the position that government ‘intervention’ is a bad idea. Should we do away with air traffic controllers, highway speed limits, etc., etc. I think not!”

Rummenroman: “I don’t understand the general principle that cruise lines prices will increase. Airline prices didn’t increase when their bill of rights were passed, why would a cruise line’s? The bill would add nothing to a cruise line’s bottom line, unless they have a problem. In which case the cruise lines’ usually give incentives to those affected, so in reality nothing will change.”

Dori Saltzman, Cruise Critic news editor, wrote a blog post about what she sees as the flawed nature of Schumer’s passenger bill of rights proposal.

It should be noted that three Carnival ships resupplied the Carnival Triumph during the crisis, and some might argue that passengers should have been allowed to board lifeboats and transfer to the other ships.

Schumer’s proposal actually only covers debarking ships at port, and Saltzman points out that the Coast Guard indicated that a mid-sea transfer in the case of the Triumph would have been very dangerous.

“You can’t just willy-nilly debark them,” Saltzman tells Skift.

And, she believes that Schumer’s proposal to give cruise passengers the right to debark a ship in a port might be tied to erroneous reports that passengers on the Carnival Dream weren’t given that option when it was disabled in St. Maarten with a backup generator problem. Actually, Saltzman notes in the blog post, they were allowed to exit the ship “once it was clear the ship would not be able to leave.”

But, it can be debated that if a cruise ship is stuck in port for hours, shouldn’t cruise passengers be given more say in when they can debark?

Saltzman says there certainly is a need for more consumer protections in the cruise industry, but concedes “to a certain extent the cruise lines hold all the cards.”

It likely will take a lot more outrage from the cruising public, and additional Carnival Splendor- and Triumph-like incidents, to produce more passenger rights in, and regulation of the cruise industry.

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