Travel Weekly recently published an article titled "Lax Regulations of Cruise Lines is a Myth."
I'm used to reading articles from Travel Weekly which lean over backwards to be nice to the cruise lines. After all, Travel Weekly is a travel magazine which caters to people who love to cruise and travel around the world.
But I was disturbed to read that the article was written by former officials from the U.S. Coast Guard, Vice Admiral Jim Hull and Rear Admiral Tim Sullivan (both now retired from service).
Their opinion piece claims that cruise lines are strictly regulated by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the Coast Guard.
They talk about the IMO's "rules & regulations" and the Coast Guard's allegedly "rigorous" annual inspections of cruise ships. They even go so far in their gushing praise of the cruise industry to state that they both take their families on cruises.
Although both of them are long since retired from the Coast Guard, the article includes images of them wearing Coast Guard uniforms. A gigantic Coast Guard seal bearing the "Semper Paratus" ("Always Ready") logo is prominently displayed at the top of the article.
Did the U.S. Coast Guard authorize these former employees to pose in uniforms and display the official seal of the Coast Guard seemingly approving an article by the for-profit travel magazine promoting the highly profitable cruise industry? Obviously not.
So who are these former Coast Guard officials and why are they cheering for the cruise industry?
The answer, in an nutshell, is because they are consultants for the cruise lines.
Take former Admiral Sullivan for example. He refers to himself on the professional business networking site, LinkedIn, as an "External Media Consultant for International Cruise Ship Association." His profile mentions that he is currently active in cruise vessels and shipyard external maritime public relations and consulting, among other activities. One of the consulting firms he worked for in the last few years lists BP and Transocean (remember the explosion and multiple deaths in the Gulf of Mexico) as well as numerous Fortune 200 oil & gas companies and drilling contractors like Chevron, Shell, Hess, Ensco and Diamond Offshore as clients.
These are consultants for big business who are well paid to get large billion dollar corporations out of tight spots. They are certainly not consultants for the little guy or a family wanting a little fun on a holiday cruise.
Now, don't get me wrong. I have great respect, as we all do, for the brave men and women in the Coast Guard who hoist ill passengers from the decks of cruise ships during dangerous medevacs far out at sea.
But I have no respect when retired-Coast Guard officials turned cruise-ship-media consultants promote the cruise industry by wearing their Coast Guard medals & uniforms of their former-employer and mis-use the official Coast Guard seal for a travel publication.
In the Travel Weekly article, these former Coast Guard officials characterize everyone who disagrees with them as "uninformed." They also mock the "critics of the industry" who characterize the IMO as a "paper tiger."
I have been to the past eight Congressional hearings where highly educated and informed Senators, Congressmen and Congresswomen have debated the problems associated with the unregulated cruise industry. Cruise lines incorporate in places like Panama (Carnival) or Liberia (Royal Caribbean) and register their ships in places like Bermuda and the Bahamas is to avoid U.S. taxes, U.S. labor and wages laws, and U.S. safety laws and regulations. To summarily dismiss the very real and sometimes deadly problems discussed and debated in good faith in the Senate and Congress as a "myth" is disrespectful to the American people and their elected officials.
Let 's talk about the IMO. The reference to it being a "paper tiger" was made by a highly distinguished Chairmen of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Jim Hall. The problem with the IMO, a United Nation's feel-good entity, is that it has no "rules" or "regulations" at all. All it can do is issue "recommendations" which it hopes the cruise lines will follow. If they don't, there is absolutely nothing the IMO can do. NTSB Chairman Hall says the industry is watched over by “paper tigers” like the International Maritime Organization and suffers from “bad actors.” He referred to the cruise industry saying: “It is, and has been, an outlaw industry. People who book cruises should be aware of that.”
And let's talk about the Coast Guard. Unfortunately, it is underfunded and has fewer vessels than the rich, powerful, enormous and ever-growing cruise industry. Does the Coast Guard rigorously inspect cruise ships? Hardly.
Remember the Carnival Splendor which suffered an engine room fire three years ago? The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard spent millions of tax payer's dollars responding to the derelict cruise ship which had to be towed back to the U.S.
What is not well known is that the Coast Guard conducted an annual examination the day before the fire and passed the vessel. This was one of the exams which retired Admiral Sullivan calls "rigorous." What an embarrassment for the Coast Guard to have inspected the cruise ship and permitted it to sail with passengers immediately before the fire broke out. Read Better Late Than Never? U.S. Coast Guard Releases Report Over 2 & 1/2 Years After Catastrophic Carnival Splendor Fire.
This is not the first public display of praise for cruise lines by Tim Sullivan. Last year, the cruise trade organization (CLIA) was under scrutiny for the widespread sexual crimes against women during cruises. CLIA wrote an article claiming that crime on cruise ships is rare: The Truth About Crime and Crime Reporting.
Who was the first person to leave a comment on the CLIA website? No one other than former Admiral Sullivan! It's hardly a coincidence. He gushed praise for CLIA but never admitted that he is a consultant for them. He even added in his favorite phrase that he loves to cruise with his family:
"Ms. Duffy, I applaud you and CLIA for continuing to tell the cruise lines’ safety and security story. From my experience as a 36-year Coast Guard officer who has both overseen and enforced Federal regulations on our nation’s waters, I can attest that in my opinion, the cruise ships that ply US waters are in full compliance with all US regulations and still provide one of the best, safest and most secure vacation experiences available. I have taken multiple cruises in the last few years with my family and always felt relaxed, safe and secure! If I didn't, I and many others simply would not go! Cruise vessels are a "well regulated" industry. From my experience, your organization and the lines it represents, have always voluntarily and fully partnered with local, state and federal organizations on behalf of your passengers. It's the right thing to do and certainly in your best interests. I remain confident that the cruise industry, along with state and federal partners, will continue to do their best for their guests. Keep at it!"
What's particularly disturbing about former Admiral Sullivan's fawning praise is that the CLIA article was written in response to a story on CNN's Anderson Cooper (Predators at Seas: Are Your Kids Safe on Cruise Ships?) about a young girl who was sexually molested on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship. The CNN story clearly demonstrated that public safety required far greater oversight of the cruise industry. Rather than supporting the little girl who was raped, CLIA enlisted former Admiral Sullivan to opine that cruising is the "best, safest and most secure" vacation imaginable.
In fact, investigating and prosecuting rapes on the high seas is not even the responsibility of the Coast Guard in the first place. If any federal agency is involved it's the Federal Bureau of Investigations.
CLIA knows that articles it plants in travel newspapers are picked up and posted on Facebook or re-tweeted on Twitter and reach a larger audience. Shortly after the retired Rear-Admirals' article was published in Travel Weekly, a well know travel blogger endorsed it lock-stock-& barrel in his article entitled Must-Read Article In Travel Weekly For All Cruise Travelers.
Not everyone in the Coast Guard shares ex-Coast Guard Sullivan's endless praise for the cruise lines. A recent New York Times articles quotes current Coast Guard Rear Admiral Joseph Servidio, who testified at a Senate hearing in July about cruise ship dangers, saying that the recent cruise ship fires “highlight serious questions about the design, maintenance and operation of fire safety equipment on board these vessels, as well as their companies’ safety management cultures."
My view: The cruise industry has endured years of harsh media coverage. From that perspective, you can understand why cruise lines are starving for some good news for a change. But having retired Coast Guard officials on the cruise line's dole publish self-serving and misleading opinions and use Coast Guard logos without authorization and without disclosing that they are media consultants is disingenuous. It's an affront to the working men and women of the Coast Guard.
The article reflects a desperate cruise industry which will continue to try and manipulate the public's opinion. In the process, the cruise lines will simply reinforce their image as not only being unregulated but lacking honesty.
Photo Credit: Darley Consulting