The Jan. 13 grounding of the Costa Concordia would have unfolded quite differently had the vessel been U.S.-flagged, according to a union official who represents merchant mariners on U.S.-flag vessels. The current death toll in the Concordia disaster is 25.
“I feel comfortable saying if this had happened on a U.S.-flagged ship, the outcome would have been very different,” Brian W. Schoeneman, legislative director of the Seafarers International Union, told a hearing before the House subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation on Wednesday.
Schoeneman’s testimony was at odds with most comments at the hearing on “Cruise Ship Safety and Lessons Learned from the Costa Concordia Accident.” Most speakers emphasized the positive safety record of the cruise industry and its highly regulated nature.
Cruising is safe
“We look at casualty statistics very closely, and they do bear out that this is a safe industry,” said vice admiral Brian M. Salerno, deputy commander for operations, U.S. Coast Guard.
Christine Duffy, president and CEO of CLIA, told the hearing that “safety is the cruise industry’s number one priority. It is absolutely essential to our business. Nothing is more important.”
Duffy cited statistics showing the industry’s positive record. “In the decade from 2002 through 2011, prior to the grounding of the Costa Concordia, there were a total of 28 fatalities on cruise ships related to an operational casualty.
“Twenty-two of those fatalities involved crew members; just six were passengers, out of 153.4 million guests who sailed during those 10 years.”
Legislators cite safety too
Members of the subcommittee also pointed out that cruising is a safe vacation choice.
“I send my mother on a cruise ship, so I know it’s safe,” said Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.), a former travel agent.
She was echoed by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-MD). “I don’t want there to be collateral damage to this industry. . . . I want to make it very clear that it is a safe industry.”
Change in the works
Duffy noted that “every aspect of the cruise experience is heavily regulated and monitored under U.S. and international maritime law for the purpose of protecting the safety of cruise passengers and crews.”
All the procedures, policies and regulations didn’t amount to much when the Costa Concordia hit a rock while deviating from its official course. Subcommittee members wanted to know what the industry had learned so far from the accident and what it expects to learn.
Duffy responded that CLIA member cruise lines launched a Cruise Industry Operational Safety Review soon after the Concordia grounding. She described the review as “a comprehensive assessment of the critical human factors and operational aspects of maritime safety.”
The review would be a rolling process, going through multiple phases, she said. “As we identify areas for best practices, we want to be able to proceed right away.”
One practice the industry already has changed is muster drills.
Though international law allows for muster drills to take place within 24 hours of departure, CLIA lines determined that they “would better serve passengers and safety by conducting the muster prior to departing the port, so passengers would immediately have information they needed,” Duffy said.
“We anticipate other best practices and lessons learned,” she added.
U.S.- vs. foreign-flagged
The question of whether there are dangerous safety differences between U.S.- and foreign-flagged vessels was raised by subcommittee members and Schoeneman of the Seafarers International Union.
“Costa Concordia has highlighted the need for well-qualified mariners and crew members,” said Schoeneman. Crew members must know what to do in an emergency and be able to communicate effectively with passengers.
Schoeneman said he “is less confident” that those qualifications are being met on foreign-flagged ships.
Won’t cruise again
Also testifying at the hearing were Concordia survivors, Sameer and Divya Sharma, who said they will not take a cruise again in the near future.
Others who testified included George Wright, senior vice president of marine operations for Princess Cruises, and Captain Evans Hoyt, master of the Pride Of America.
The subcommittee hearing took on added significance with news earlier in the week that another Costa ship was in trouble.
The Costa Allegra suffered an engine fire early on Monday that left it adrift for days, without power, off the Seychelle Islands. The ship was being towed to the Seychelles and was expected to arrive early on Thursday. (See sidebar.)
Senate hearings were scheduled for March 1.