Costa Concordia Anniversary: 1 Year Later, Is The Cruise Industry Safer?

  @MarkJohansonIBT on January 11 2013 4:59 PM
A view of the Costa Concordia cruise ship that ran aground off the west coast of Italy (Reuters)
The Costa Concordia remains partially submerged off the coast of Italy's Giglio Island. Reuters

An estimated 32 people perished at sea one year ago when the Costa Concordia cruise ship slammed into rocks off the coast of Italy’s Giglio Island and forced the nighttime evacuation of more than 4,000 passengers. The disaster rattled the rapidly growing cruise industry, but as the anniversary approaches this weekend, there are tangible signs that the industry is both ready and willing to make changes.

“I think it was definitely a wake-up call,” said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of industry-tracker Cruise Critic. “I’ve cruised more than 200 times and it had never occurred to me that something like this could happen. It was wrenching, and I think it shook a lot of people.”

The ship’s captain, Francesco Schettino, is accused of manslaughter after steering the ship too closely to the shore as a way of “saluting” Giglio’s inhabitants. It’s a procedure he claims the ship’s owner, Carnival Corp.’s Italian unit, Costa Crociere, instructed him to do. Brown said it was a fairly common practice until last year.

In the days after the disaster, passengers recounted tales of utter confusion and a delayed evacuation that would lead to charges against eight others, including crewmembers and officials from Costa Crociere.

The fact that the sinking took place on the 100-year anniversary of the Titanic disaster made Costa Concordia the biggest news story to come out of early 2012, and it left many wondering why the cruise industry, unlike air and land travel, had such outdated safety regulations.

“The disaster certainly made the industry focus more on safety,” Brown noted, “and it made us say, ‘Why didn’t we catch this stuff before.’ ”

10 New Safety Policies

Remarkably, a lot of good has come out of the tragedy in the last year. The Cruise Lines International Association, or CLIA, launched a review in January led by a panel of outside maritime and safety experts who pushed for several new regulations, the first of which involved mandating a pre-departure safety drill (something that didn’t occur on the Costa Concordia).

Other changes put forth include new requirements for consistency and transparency in marine casualty data, the recording of passenger nationality, stowage of sufficient life jackets at muster stations, the synchronization of bridge operations within commonly owned and operated fleets, the securing of heavy objects, new crew training for the loading of lifeboats, and policies regarding necessary common elements of muster and emergency instructions.

Some of these regulations, Brown said, are simply updates the industry hadn’t realized would be necessary. Others, like the limiting of bridge access, are a direct result of the Costa Concordia accident, where a 25-year-old girl allegedly dined with Schettino as the vessel collided with rocks.

“It’s important to keep in mind that one of the reasons all of us were complacent [before the disaster] is because really bad things have happened on cruise ships and they’ve handled them splendidly,” Brown remarked.

Indeed, just days prior to the Concordia incident, the 2,550-passenger MSC Poesia ran aground on a shallow reef in the Bahamas. With the help of four tug boats, it was freed and carried on to its next scheduled stop. Similarly, fires aboard the Star Princess in 2006, the Carnival Splendor in 2010 and the Azamara Quest in 2012 were more inconveniences than tragedies.

In late December last year, eight regional cruise organizations joined together under the CLIA banner, unifying the big players within one umbrella group for the first time. Yet, while nearly every major company has signed on to follow the CLIA’s new safety recommendations, they’re not obligated to do so by law. There’s no seal of approval for a safe cruise ship, and nearly all of the changes put forth for the cruise industry this year have, so far, been voluntary.

“A lot of people call it window dressing,” Brown said, “but it’s something -- and I guarantee safety will be a focus for years to come.”

Moving On From Costa Concordia

Christine Duffy, president and CEO of the CLIA, said safety remains the organization’s No. 1 priority.

“The Operational Safety Review was part of our industry’s longstanding and ongoing mission of continuous improvement and innovation in shipboard operations and safety,” she said. “It also was a rededication of our commitment to safety on behalf of the victims and all those affected by the Concordia incident, and the millions of other passengers and crew [who] sail on cruise ships every year.”

Duffy said the CLIA will continue to collaborate with the International Maritime Organization, or IMO, in 2013 to maintain a culture of safety within the industry. The association was successful in getting the new muster drill policy into law this past December, and the CLIA hopes its other recommendations -- which it says exceeded requirements set by the IMO through Solas, the Safety of Life at Sea convention -- will become mandatory instead of voluntary in the coming year.

One of the main issues present in the Costa Concordia accident will be harder to address: human error.

The annual Safety and Shipping Review from Allianz Global Corporate and Specialty, or AGCS, indicates that human error “remains a root cause of most incidents.”

Dr. Sven Gerhard of AGCS explained that fatigue, economic pressures and inadequate training are often causes for concern, however he commended the industry’s self-regulation in 2012 as a “core driver of safety.”

The Maritime Labor Convention (2006), which comes into force in August 2013, will also help by addressing the welfare and working conditions of seafarers, he noted in the report.

Despite images of the half-submerged Costa Concordia smattered on front pages of newspapers across the globe, the cruise industry shows no sign of slowing down. Cruise Market Watch projects 20.9 million cruise passengers worldwide in 2013, a 3.3 percent increase over 2012. Companies will add six new ships to their fleets, which are in turn projected to generate $3.2 billion more in annual revenue for the industry.

As more people take to the seas in the coming year, they can thank the Costa Concordia for ensuring that their journey will be a safer one.

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