Friday, February 15, 2013

The Carnival Cruise Failure - An Indictment of the Entire Cruise Ship Industry

Late last night, the Carnival Triumph finally came into port in Mobile Alabama and began disembarking passengers after being stranded at sea aboard due to an engine room fire.

Even the towing was not without its own problems. Just within view of shore, a tow line snapped and left the ship again stranded before it could be reattached.

There were 4,200 passengers and more than 1,000 workers on board the ship when the fire killed the power to the ship.

These are floating cities that rely on their power systems to operate pretty much every system, from propulsion to water and sanitary sewer systems (the toilets, wash rooms, refrigeration and freezer systems, etc.) You would think that backup systems would be able to kick in to handle the key power systems should the main systems go down, but you'd be wrong.

The backup systems can't - and it's not because those systems don't exist. It's because they'd cost money that the cruise lines and their engineers have deemed to be unnecessary and would otherwise cut into their profit margins.

Cruise ships have gotten progressively larger, which means that when the cruise ships lose power, ever larger numbers on board are affected. The Carnival Triumph is among the largest of the current fleet of cruise ships.

Larger ships are on the drawing board, but they too will have a similar problem.

Fire is an all too common event on board cruise ships, and that's one of the reasons that cruises always start with mandatory drills at the start of their cruises - to familiarize passengers with the location and how to deal with emergencies at sea. Engine room fires happen all the time, as do the loss of power.

The Triumph is just the highest profile of these fire events in recent years, but there's very little that the IMO (the international organization that oversees safety on board shipping) can do that would improve conditions on board ships should they lose power. Their recommendations don’t come with the kind of enforcement powers we associate with the US Coast Guard (which itself is woefully undermanned and can’t conduct much more than annual surveys on board the cruise ship plus their initial certification).

The problem isn't just confined to Triumph, or even the Triumph class of cruise ships. Backup systems apparently can’t handle the kind of load necessary to run vital public health systems (plumbing, ac, etc.) That has to change, and that’s going to cost a whole lot of money to a cruise industry that thrives due to sub-par compensation to its workers, working ships to within an inch of their existence, and doing everything possible to keep the boats in service even after public health incidents (norovirus outbreaks) that could continue into the next cruise because there’s really no way to properly clean the ships thoroughly if they’re already taking on passengers for the next cruise within hours of the end of the prior cruise.

I’m waiting for the National Parks Service (or an amusement park) to hit back at Carnival’s current ad campaign showing how smooth their park experiences can be compared to the Carnival Triumph one.

Thing to remember is that when a cruise goes okay, it’s one thing, but when a cruise ship has problems, things can go wrong in a real hurry and cause huge problems.

Carnival’s hoping people have real short term memories, and that it wont affect bookings. They’re already hurting because of the Costa Concordia. This wont help them and their bottom line. I fully expect the lawsuits to come rolling in - especially now that they’re talking about $500 cash to passengers, which barely covers salary losses and other losses incurred by the extended time on board, plus the decrepit conditions.

Meanwhile, the Triumph will be out of service for the better part of this year to deal with cleaning up the huge biohazard mess left behind in the wake of this week's cruise mess.


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