Skip to main content

What cruise lines don't want you to know

By James Walker, Special to CNN
February 14, 2013 -- Updated 2021 GMT (0421 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • James Walker: Carnival Triumph was a rerun of Splendor, which also had engine room fire
  • Walker: Fires are frequent on cruise ships, investigations of illness outbreaks rushed
  • He says industry avoids U.S. labor laws, taxes, oversight by incorporating in foreign nations
  • Cruises are cheap because crews work long hours for little pay, ships are run 24/7, he says

Editor's note: James M. Walker is a maritime lawyer and cruise safety advocate involved in cruise ship law and maritime litigation with his law firm, Walker and O'Neill. He has represented crew members and passengers against cruise lines, including Carnival and Royal Caribbean. Formerly, he worked as a lawyer for the cruise industry.

(CNN) -- A Carnival cruise ship was adrift 150 miles off the coast of Mexico after an engine room fire. Cruise passengers were complaining about the lack of air conditioning, hot cabins, cold food and toilets that wouldn't flush.

As I watched the news broadcast, I thought it was a documentary about the Carnival Splendor, which suffered a disabling engine room fire in November 2010 off Mexico. But the story was about the Carnival Triumph, which caught fire early Sunday after sailing from Galveston, Texas, with more than 3,100 passengers.

The cruise industry says cruise ship fires are rare, but they are not rare. They happen with alarming frequency. In the two years between the Splendor and the Triumph fires, more than 10 cruise ship fires were reported in the media. Several cruise ships were completely disabled, including the Costa Allegra, the Bahamas Celebration and the Ocean Star.

The Azamara Quest was partially disabled and had to crawl back to port in Indonesia. The Allegra and Quest broke down in waters where pirates frequent, to add to the drama.

A fire aboard the Queen Mary II was later determined to have been caused by a "catastrophic explosion."

Other cruise ships experienced what the industry would either deny or call "minor fires," including the Adventure of the Seas, the Crown Princess, the MSC Musica and the Allure. But there is nothing minor about a cruise ship, filled with thousands of passengers, catching on fire on the high seas, even for a matter of seconds.

James Walker
James Walker

I have attended seven congressional hearings since 2005 regarding issues of cruise ship passenger safety. At the last hearing, before Sen. Jay Rockefeller, cruise expert and author Ross Klein said fires broke out in 79 cruise ships from 1990 to 2011. Most of these fires received little coverage in the U.S. press. It is a topic that the travel publications avoid and travel agents do not like to hear.

Concordia disaster focuses attention on how cruise industry operates

The cruise industry does a remarkable job advertising that cruising is a safe and affordable family vacation. It certainly is affordable, in large part because major cruise lines such as Carnival and Royal Caribbean are incorporated in foreign countries like Panama, the Bahamas, Bermuda and Liberia. Their ships fly the flags of foreign nations and thus avoid all U.S. federal taxes, labor laws and safety regulations.

In 2011, three-quarters of the nearly 16 million cruise bookings worldwide were made from the United States, according to the industry group Cruise Lines International Association, which represents 26 cruise lines, including the world's largest, Carnival and Royal Caribbean.

Carnival ship moving slowly through Gulf
Cruise passenger use bags as toilets

You can't find a cheaper vacation than spending a week on one of these "fun ships." But the vacation comes with a hidden price. The cruise lines are working their crew members excessively long hours and paying them extremely low wages.

The Cruise Lines International Association says its "crew members are provided wages that are competitive with international pay scales." But a cleaner aboard a Royal Caribbean ship, for example, will work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for as little as $156.25 a week with no tips. U.S. labor laws are not applicable to provide protection to crew members at sea, nor is there any real oversight of the cruise lines' operations.

The cruise industry insists that it is regulated and that the safety and security of its passengers and crew is its highest priority. Ships are subject to inspections by the countries they call on. In the United States, ships must pass initial and annual U.S. Coast Guard Marine inspections.

But the Coast Guard is underfunded and understaffed and can't possibly conduct adequate inspections of the hundreds of cruise ships that call regularly on U.S. ports across the nation. And the ships are getting bigger and carrying more passengers every year. For example, Disney Fantasy -- whose safety is not in doubt -- is 14 decks high and more than three football fields long and can carry about 5,500 people.

Cruise ships theoretically follow guidelines set forth by the International Maritime Organization and the recommendations in the Safety of Life at Sea. But the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations organization, does not have the authority to enforce its own guidelines, nor can it impose fines or criminal sanctions against cruise lines that flout Safety of Life at Sea recommendations. This obligation falls to flag states, like Panama.

The result is that cruise lines are largely unregulated. They offer low-price cruise fares to get the passengers aboard and then make their profits from alcohol sales; casino, spa and photography activities; and shore excursions.

The cruise lines operate their ships virtually 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. Cruise ships do not make money unless they are operating. The cruise lines push the ships just as hard as they push their crew members. A ship out of service for a week for routine maintenance means the loss of tens of millions of dollars and thousands of dissatisfied customers.

Talk Back: How should cruise passengers be compensated?

It is in this environment that the 13-year-old Carnival Triumph was trying to sail back to Galveston.

Cruise ships, like their foreign-based crew members, are treated as fungible goods. When crew members get debilitating injuries because of overwork and exhaustion, they are left in their home countries. The Triumph, sailing since 1999, will eventually end up being sold to the European market, renamed and abandoned as well.

The push to always keep the show on the road without long delays causes the same problems in investigations of passenger disappearances, shipboard crimes and gastrointestinal illnesses. These investigations are often rushed so the cruise is held up for as little time as possible.

When there is a norovirus outbreak on a ship, cruise lines are faced with the prospect of disembarking hundreds of ill passengers, sanitizing the ship and then reloading several thousands of passengers on board. It is an impossible prospect to locate and kill the virus on the massive ships given the short turnaround on an embarkation day. But the business model of the cruise industry is: Strike up the band and hand out the daiquiris, the cruise must go on.

It is also impossible for governmental entities such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct a thorough, painstaking epidemiology study to ascertain the type of virus and its origin. Cruise lines quickly blame the passengers for not washing their hands, but the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration concluded long ago that the most likely and common source of norovirus is contaminated food or water.

Crew members say that infected workers often do not complain of their illness out of fear of not being paid or of losing their jobs. Cruise lines tell the passengers to use hand sanitizers, but the culprit may be norovirus-laden salad.

Unlike the U.S. commercial aviation industry, with strict Federal Aviation Administration oversight that can ground a fleet of aircraft, the cruise industry is largely accountable to countries like Panama or the Bahamas -- which may or may not want to offend their cruise line friends in Miami.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of James Walker.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1340 GMT (2140 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2305 GMT (0705 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT