Friday the 13th was the 6 month anniversary of the January the 13th Costa Concordia disaster.
This weekend, I read through several dozen articles which looked back over the last 6 months since the Costa cruise ship killed 32 people and terrorized thousands. I watched the recent specials on NBC and CNN about dangers inherent in cruising, including rapes as well as ship fires and sinkings.
I am struck by just how badly all of the articles and videos portray the cruise industry.
The Miami Herald recently published an article Cruise Industry Still in Troubled Waters Six Months After Costa Concordia, written by tourism reporter Hannah B. Sampson, who I have criticized for writing puff pieces supporting the cruise lines. Ms. Sampson seems to have had a moment of insight. She writes " . . . the cruise industry is treading water, faced with depressed fares in key markets, continuing negative headlines and would-be cruisers still spooked by the deadly disaster."
The article continues: " . . . lawsuits related to the Jan. 13 catastrophe are piling up. The captain blamed for the accident — still being investigated but no longer on house arrest — is making new headlines in television interviews. And the larger question of safety on cruise ships is earning greater scrutiny as longtime critics gain a wider audience."
This time, the Miami Herald has the story exactly right. Things are indeed tough when the Miami Herald - a huge supporter of the cruise lines - delivers a message that the cruise industry is struggling.
The Miami Herald interviewed the usual cruise lines fans and industry representatives. Carolyn Spencer Brown, the editor of the popular online cruise community Cruise Critic, and an unabashed cruise supporter, is quoted saying “It was horrific, the ship’s still in the water, we’re still hearing about it.” She predicted that " . . . we won’t see the new normal until we get past the year’s anniversary." I agree, assuming the doomed ship is not still lying on its side in the little port of Giglio next year.
Salvage operations are finally starting in an effort to float the dead cruise ship out of sight to a scrap yard where it will be disemboweled, cut up and eventually melted. The salvage operations seem to be painfully slow to me, although I suppose it is a massive undertaking with a ship that big.
Will the salvage be done by January 13th of next year? It will be a PR disaster if not. The cruise industry doesn't want the ship to still be there when the families of the dead return for another vigil. I would not doubt it if the salvage contract contains incentives to complete the job before January 13, 2013.
There is another operation underway - to try and salvage the cruise industry's reputation. This is a far more difficult task.
The Concordia disaster brought the world's attention not only on the outrageous conduct of the captain but on the manner in which the cruise industry treats its customers after disaster strikes. Part of the discussion today involves the onerous terms of the passenger tickets which the cruise lines draft to protect themselves against all legal claims. It is shameful for a cruise industry, which collects over $35,000,000,000 a year and pays no taxes, to offer 11,000 Euros on a take-it-or-leave-it basis to traumatized passengers.
There is also the pesky business of cruise ship crimes (particularly rape) and accusations that the industry covers crime up. The debate whether cruising is a perfect place to commit a crime has resurfaced and reached a much broader audience.
The cruise line's trade organization, Cruise Line International Association (CLIA), doesn't have much to say to compete with the images of the panic and terror aboard the Concordia or the spectacle of a rape victim explaining how a family vacation turned into a nightmare. CLIA's talking points are old. This is an industry that promises cruising is safe, but works overtime to conceal crimes from the public.
The public must feel uneasy when CLIA's favorite PR statement “the number one priority of the cruise industry is the safety of its passengers” is juxtaposed against a 15 year old girl on CNN's Anderson Cooper's program discussing how a crew member raped her.
CLIA was under siege at a Senate hearing into the Concordia last March when Senator Rockefeller characterized CLIA President Christine Duffy as dishonest and the cruise industry being more interesting in avoiding U.S. taxes than the passenger's safety.
Add to this the recent revelation that the FBI and the cruise lines scuttled the Cruise Vessel Security & Safety Act in a concerted effort to prevent the U.S. public from learning about the hundreds of crimes which occur each year on CLIA cruise ships.
CLIA tries to portray the cruise industry as proactive and interested in regulating itself. But many think this is more publicity than substance. Consider how little the cruise lines have done since January to actually improve cruise ship safety.
The Herald article outlines only a handful of steps the cruise lines have discussed in an effort to convince the public to spend their vacation dollars cruising:
(1) more life vests on the ships; (2) no unnecessary people in the bridge; (3) pre-approved ship routes shared with all members of bridge; (4) twelve uniform emergency instructions; and (5) evacuation drills before a ship leaves port.
But these are such basic procedures that it is shocking to think that they were not in place 100 years ago, after the Titanic sank.
It's like having an aviation industry where there are no mandatory safety instructions before take-off, girlfriends of the captain are permitted to enter the cockpit during an emergency landing, and the captain is the first one off the plane and down the emergency slide.
Even uber cruise fan Carolyn Spencer Brown admits: "Many of those changes should have already been in place before the incident."
My prediction is that the salvage efforts will have the Concordia out of sight before the one year anniversary of the disaster.
But the cruise line's reputation? If the cruise industry doesn't develop transparency, its battered reputation will sink further below the waves.
Top - AP / Pier Paola Cito
Bottom Sky News