The Holland America Line (HAL) excursion staff on the Westerdam is in an uproar after Yahoo Travel published an article yesterday containing criticisms of its excursion policies and procedures. I was quoted in the article. I characterized HAL’s policy of assessing a 100% penalty against cruise passengers who cancel a seaplane excursion more than 3 days before the cruise as dangerous and irresponsible.

An officer on the cruise line left comments here claiming he was "deeply offended," first, by my criticism of the reckless HAL policy and, secondly, because I didn’t retract my comments and apologize to him personally. Other crew members and HAL fans howled in protest that criticisms were levied against the Westerdamcruise line. 

The arrogance of the cruise lines never ceases to amaze me. 

Hurt feelings of an officer on a cruise ship is perhaps the last thing I am thinking of in a tragic case where 8 innocent passengers have lost their lives and their families are grieving enormously. 

All victims deserve nothing less than an exhaustive investigation, detailed analysis and vigorous debate regarding what happened. But the cruise lines never (ever) release the  results of their investigation voluntarily. After their PR department expresses condolences, the cruise lines’ defense attorneys go to work defending the cruise lines and casting blame on others whenever they can.

The cruise lines prefer that no one discusses what most likely happened. They personally attack critics. HAL thrives on these tactics, as I have learned before

But the unfortunate truth is that cruise lines are not proactive in making changes to their safety policies. Their guests and crew members have to be injured or killed before they do the right thing. The Costa Concordia had to happen before Carnival-owned Costa would stop its reckless policy of sailing dangerously close to the shore in what is called a "salute" or a "fly-by." 32 people had to die and thousands had to be terrorized before Carnival stopped this stunt. 

The Carnival-owned Triumph had to be hauled across the Gulf of Mexico and CNN devote non-stop coverage to the disgusting spectacle before the cruise line would install splash guards to prevent fuel and oil lines from spraying over the engines and erupting in fire. 

Dozens of cruise passengers from the Carnival-owned Fascinosa had to be gunned down when terrorists waited for them to exit from an excursion bus in Tunis before Carnival / Costa would begin to take the threat of terrorism seriously.  

Carnival-owned HAL has a current policy of penalizing its guests if they try and cancel an air excursion during the cruise. A couple arriving in Ketchican near the end of a cruise, seeing that the skies were overcast and visibility was poor, are faced with a penalty of the cost of the excursion (hundreds of dollars) if they thought it looked unsafe to fly. 

This greedy policy, combined with HAL’s claim that it deferred to the air excursion company whether it was safe to fly in weather that even a child would feel is unsafe, placed the passengers in danger.  Flying Westerdam Excursion Crashin Alaska is fraught with peril on the best appearing days, because it is by flight-vision-only in circumstances where the weather can change quickly and visibility can degrade without notice.

What were hesitant cruise passengers told? The fog will lift? Don’t worry. The weather will improve? This is the "misty fjords" excursion to see "misty" fjords after all?

Will HAL be forced to scrap this risky policy?  Will guests be permitted to cancel without penalty? Will the cruise line cancel the flights when the weather is potentially dangerous and forego the money? Will the cruise lines appoint an independent ombudsman to prohibit excursions from flying when prudence demands caution?  

If any changes are made, it will be only because 8 passengers lost their lives and the cruise line has to deal with the PR debacle, not because the cruise line is being proactive and prudent.

Have a thought? Please leave a comment below or join the discussion on our Facebook page

June 30 2015 Update:  Cruise Law News challenges Holland America ("All bush pilots and planes in Alaska are under more scrutiny now. And that’s a good thing. It should lead to better safety. But to make things that much better, we hope cruise lines think about Cruise Law News recommendations.")

Photo Credit: Becky Bohrer / AP

  • tinikini

    You know, at first, I thought that with every excursion comes risk. It doesn’t matter where you are or what type of vacation you take. If you participate you take a risk. However, after reading the whole article, if you are penalized 100% to cancel due to bad weather and within three days,that makes a huge decision on whether you cancel or not, and basically risk your life or not. You don’t expect to die on vacation, but you probably should think about it before you go and participate. I, personally love to take it all in and be adventurous, but flying in bad weather in Alaska is something I would not do. My dad had a Cessna when I was growing up. I know better, but a lot of people don’t, and they are on vacation so they don’t give it another thought and don’t want to lose their money.

    More transparency on the risks and weather factors should probably be included in the description of the excursion. Or possibly marked “extreme” or “for thrill seekers only” or “you fly at your own risk and HAL assumes no responsibility” so that you are very aware before you pay the money and sign up. Poor weather and/or poor conditions should always be a deal breaker, but Alaska is known for poor weather so no one would be flying at all, if these pilots were to adhere to that policy.

    So sad that it is always about the money instead of lives. My thoughts and prayers to all of the families who lost loved ones.

  • Tim Dye

    I know all the Cruise Lines have gotten very Greedy lately. Even my Favorite (I’m Emerald C&AS) But notice who you mention in your article,every single time! And we like Princess also. I hope I am not next!

  • Erin

    I was on this cruise and when we got off the ship in Ketchikan it was barely drizzling. The weather turned around 10:30- 11:00 am. All the facts are not in. And the fog rolled in after the plan went missing.

  • Colin

    I think that most cruisers simply assume that if the excursion is going ahead that it is safe. I think that they assume that HAL would cancel it if it wasn’t safe or the excursion provider would cancel.

    I have to agree that a cancellation fee of 100% 3 days prior makes it very difficult for folks to cancel these excursions. Even 24 hours prior makes it difficult, as you are sailing on a ship and are disconnected from things like weather forecasts and up to date news events.

  • Jay

    Seems like Carnival owned is a re occuring theme. That cruisline as a whole is greedy. They only pay operators a fraction of what they charge passengers on the ship and yes if you cancel you will be penalized even if you dont think it is safe. Most operators cant afford to keep their equipment up to par with what they are being paid. Example i know of a tour they charge $70 for on ship but only pay the operator $20. I know this because i work for one of these operators. And if you try to get $5 more from them they cancel your excursion and find someone who will do it for $18 instead. So tell me where the safety is.

  • John Goldsmith

    I am partial to taking Helicopter tours when on holidays. On our first cruise we got into the air when the clouds closed in on Hilo, Hawaii. Full refund for the short trip. On other holidays, I’ve flown in various models of helicopters and have never felt unsafe, even though the wind and rain have occasionally played havoc with the flight. As far as the cancellation policies are concerned, I believe all policies are posted regarding what is covered with the fees, so there should be no surprises when something goes wrong. As for operators on the shore excursions, the pilot always has the last word to go or not to go, I believe by law he or she is protected in cases where cancelled flights caused inconvenience.

  • Diana

    I have been on many cruises, most on HAL ships, and have always felt safe on excursions. My first cruise was with HAL to Alaska and I was signed up to go on the Misty Fjords excursion. It was cancelled the morning we arrived due to weather and we received a full refund. The most recent cruise was on the Westerdam through the Panama Canal, and our snorkeling excursion on Half Moon Cay was cancelled due to high surf in the ocean. Again, full refund. HAL has always, always stressed safety on every ship I’ve been on. And to say the Costa Concordia tragedy was due to Carnival’s “policy” of doing “fly-bys” is completely false. That Captain did that on his own, against company policy, and exercised a continuity of the poorest judgment in every conceivable way. To ascribe his criminal behavior to company policy is irresponsible.

  • Jen

    I have to agree with the earlier poster, passengers assume that if an excursion is not cancelled, the operator and the cruise line have deemed it safe, when the likelihood nowadays is that it may not be. The cruise lines are contracting with the cheapest operators to maximize profit, and they in turn are taking risks and/or shortcuts, because they are charging so little in order to get the business that they have no choice. If cruise lines are not going to be as stringent as they should be in determining when an excursion is safe, passengers should retain the right to make that call without penalty.

    That being said, I personally would have walked away from my $900 and argued with the cruise line when I got home, rather than risk my life on an excursion I didn’t feel was safe.

    At the end of the day however, cruise lines are publicly traded companies, their first obligation is always to bring the maximum possible profit for their shareholders at any cost. Passenger satisfaction and more importantly, safety, will never be the highest priority. That isn’t changing any time soon.

  • Patterson Law Solicitors

    Were I a manager of, or an officer on a cruise liner, a Jim Walker article posted in my direction would certainly invoke a sinking feeling, because at best it would mean a flogging, at worst a keel-hauling!