The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is beginning a two-day meeting today in Washington D.C. regarding the topic of passenger safety aboard cruise ships. The meeting was requested and largely organized by the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA), the trade group for the cruise lines, to showcase the cruise industry.
Participating in the meeting will be NTSB members, CLIA representatives, cruise line employees, Coast Guard officials, and delegates from the International Maritime Organization (IMO). The IMO is an United Nations entity which makes safety recommendations for cruise ships but is powerless to enforce the recommendations or discipline or punish cruise lines which ignore the recommendations.
The NTSB refused to invite the International Cruise Victims (ICV) organization to Washington D.C. and refuses to permit the ICV to participate in the meeting. The ICV is a grass-roots, non-profit organization consisting of thousands of members who are dedicated to making cruising safer. Our firm has many former clients who are members of the ICV, including Lynnette Hudson, the daughter of Princess Cruises passenger Richard Liffridge from Georgia who perished in a fire aboard the Star Princess cruise ship.
The NTSB hearing is opening now with remarks from the Coast Guard about cruise ship accident investigations and fire protection. It is a shame that the NTSB and CLIA refuse to permit the ICV's involvement in the meeting given the first hand experience of the ICV members in dealing with dangers aboard cruise ships. Ms. Hudson previously inspected the cruise ship which killed her father to make certain that it finally had a fire detection and suppression system installed. She testified before the United States House of Representatives regarding the cruise ship fire which killed her father. You can read about that fire and Ms. Hudson's recommendations to prevent similar fatalities here: Ten Years of Cruise Ship Fires - Has the Cruise Industry Learned Anything?
Other ICV members were aboard the Costa Concordia when it crashed into the rocks and killed 32 souls.
When I realized that the NTSB was excluding the ICV, I send emails to the NTSB spokesperson, Eric Weiss, requesting an explanation why only CLIA members and cruise line employees were welcome. Mr. Weiss ignored my emails. But he recently spoke to a Miami Herald reporter stating that: “Security and crime is not in our jurisdiction. This is about cruise ship safety, not security.”
The ICV has many members personally affected by the absence of safety systems and protocols on cruise ships. The ICV has participated in five Congressional hearings addressing safety issues such as engine failures and fires. It appears that CLIA and the NTSB are systematically excluding any organization with victims who have personal experiences regarding cruise ship dangers while inviting only employees and friends of the cruise lines who wish to shield the industry from criticism.
I realize that the cruise lines are desperate for favorable press after the debacle of the Carnival Splendor and the Carnival Triumph, with both cruise ships igniting shortly after Coast Guard inspections, as well as the deadly disaster involving the Carnival-owned Costa Concordia. But excluding cruise victims and orchestrating a rigged meeting with dog and pony shows by CLIA and cruise line representatives is shameful.
NTSB's relationship with the cruise industry has always been a mixed bag.
Years ago, the NTSB's chairman was Jim Hall, a man of personal integrity who never wavered from who his commitment to the safety of the traveling public.
Mr. Hall earned a reputation for objectivity and credibility when he was the NTBS's top dog from 1994 - 2001. He was involved in investigating serious accidents in both the aviation and cruise industries. He voiced his concerns that there would be continued problems in the maritime industry because there was no real oversight over the cruise lines. Consider the comments which Mr. Hall made to Newsweek last year:
"Jim Hall, head of the National Transportation Safety Board during the Clinton administration, says the industry is watched over by “paper tigers” like the International Maritime Organization and suffers from “bad actors” much like in the poorly regulated motor-coach industry, which saw its latest fatal bus crash in Southern California earlier this month. “The maritime industry is the oldest transportation industry around. We’re talking centuries. It’s a culture that has never been broken as the aviation industry was, and you see evidence of that culture in the [Costa Concordia] accident,” says Hall."
After Mr. Hall retired as chairman, the NTSB went in a different direction. From 2006 - 2008, Mark Rosenker served as the NTSB chairmen but he catered to the cruise industry. In 2007, CLIA's Board of Directors wined and dined Rosenker during the annual Sea Trade cruise convention (now called Cruise shipping Miami) here in Miami. He gave a nice speech to CLIA (you can read here) which he began by stating " I am very pleased that your safety record is excellent." This was a rather amazing and outrageous thing to say given the fact that just a year earlier, the Star Princess ignited off the coast of Jamaica and burned through 100 cabins and killed our client's father, Richard Liffridge, mentioned above.
Rosenker even promised CLIA that he would help the cruise lines keep "sensitive" information about maritime accidents away from the public, telling CLIA "there are provisions in the law to keep certain voluntarily provided safety information confidential."
Rosenker and CLIA were a perfect match. Both were interested in suppressing damaging information about cruise mishaps from the public.
After Rosenker retired from the NTSB, CLIA paid him as a consultant for the cruise industry. His job largely appears to tell everyone who will listen that "the industry has an outstanding safety record and the most dangerous part of the cruise is undoubtedly the drive to the port. It is very rare that people are injured on a cruise ship,” as he told the cruise industry publication World Cruise Industry Review in 2010.
In 2012 and 2013 Rosenker continued his gushing praise of a cruise industry which puts money in his pocket, telling a travel agent publication that “it is important for consumers to understand that cruise vacations are extremely safe. This industry is highly regulated with tremendous oversight.” Rosenker told another cruise industry publication that “every aspect of the cruise industry is heavily monitored and regulated under US, EU and international law.”
Senator Rockefeller admonished Rosenker during his testimony last year when he repeated the cruise industry's talking points before a Senate hearing on cruise ship safety issues last year, because of his obvious bias for the cruise lines.
The cruise line routinely hires from the NTSB, FBI, Coast Guard, USPH and other federal agencies. Many former federal officials seem to pander to the cruise lines while in public office. Former Coast Guard officials often quickly turn into paid cruise line consultants who are pleased to appear in cruise industry publications still wearing their Coast Guard uniform and medals standing in front of an official Coast Guard logo while attesting to their wonderful experiences cruising.
Of course, no current or past federal employee should engage in such hyperbolic cheer-leading like this. It is unprofessional and unseemly. It is a conflict of interest. But some federal officials seem motivated to angle for private sector jobs in the rich cruise industry which pays no federal income taxes and is overseen, if all all, by poor, flag of convenience nations like Panama and the Bahamas and the "paper tigers," mentioned by Mr. Hall, at the IMO.
So the NTSB-CLIA love-fest begins this morning. Where is the integrity of Jim Hall? Where are the victims of cruise ship fires and sinkings? Who is speaking for the dead and injured? Have all of the federal agencies crawled in bed with the cruise lines?