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Carnival cruise line in more troubled waters

By Lateef Mungin and Mark Morgenstein, CNN
March 16, 2013 -- Updated 1437 GMT (2237 HKT)
  • Crisis expert says Carnival should focus on reimbursement, passenger communication
  • Carnival Dream had problems Wednesday; return flights for it passengers started Friday
  • Carnival Legend is having technical difficulties that affect its sailing speed
  • This week's troubles come after Carnival Triumph became crippled last month

(CNN) -- First, it was Triumph.

Then, Elation.

Then, Dream.

And now, Legend.

While those are happy names for cruise ships, some Carnival Cruise Lines passengers say their recent onboard experiences belie the names.

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In yet another setback for the cruise line, the Carnival Legend is having technical difficulties that are affecting its sailing speed. It's the latest in a growing list of woes for the travel company.

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The Legend was on the last leg of a seven-day Caribbean cruise that departed Tampa, Florida, on Sunday. In a month's time, three other Carnival cruise ships have reported problems.

Carnival Dream lost power and some toilets stopped working Wednesday, and no one was allowed to get off the vessel docked at Philipsburg, St. Maarten, in the eastern Caribbean. Carnival says it is flying the more than 4,000 passengers back to Florida and will give them discounts.

Carnival Elation had to be escorted by a tugboat Saturday because of a malfunction in its steering system, the cruise company said.

My trip on the Triumph: From joy to misery

And in the most publicized case, last month, an engine room fire left the Carnival Triumph crippled and adrift in the Gulf of Mexico with more than 4,200 people aboard. That scheduled four-day cruise stretched into eight days as tugs pulled the vessel into port in Alabama. Food was scarce, and passengers sweltered in the heat.

Passengers losing patience

Because of the problems on the Legend, Carnival said it had canceled a scheduled stop in Grand Cayman and the ship will make its trek back to its scheduled final destination in Tampa.

Even though the vessel is expected to arrive on schedule Sunday, some people on board are losing patience, passenger Rob Bonenfant said.

"Passengers are now really pissed off," he said via e-mail. "Mood on the ship is getting worse among passengers, captain is giving limited information."

Carnival has promised to refund $100 to passengers and give them other refunds and discounts.

See where things are inside a cruise ship

"Carnival Legend is experiencing a technical issue with one of the ship's Azipod units that is affecting the vessel's sailing speed," the cruise company said. "The ship's safety systems and hotel services are all functioning normally."

The Azipod, a crucial part for steering and propelling a vessel, was the same issue that hampered the Carnival Elation on Saturday.

"Carnival is really screwing this up," Bonenfant said. "Many have already said they will not book again with Carnival."

Crisis communication expert Tom Donahue, an executive at the Porter Novelli public relations firm, said Carnival may be making the right operational decisions. However, the frequency and effectiveness of communications to passengers -- who have no other information source -- are what influences the passengers' perspective.

"Mike watching the first tugboat setting up to pull us," writes Chase Maclaskey on Instagram. The 4,229 passengers and crew aboard the Carnival Triumph have been stuck on the ship since fire disabled the vessel on Sunday, February 10. Click through to see passengers' photos from on board. "Mike watching the first tugboat setting up to pull us," writes Chase Maclaskey on Instagram. The 4,229 passengers and crew aboard the Carnival Triumph have been stuck on the ship since fire disabled the vessel on Sunday, February 10. Click through to see passengers' photos from on board.
Moments from aboard the ship
Photos: Triumph passengers share photos Photos: Triumph passengers share photos
The crippled cruise liner Carnival Triumph limps into port late Thursday, February 14, in Mobile, Alabama. Passengers had endured five days aboard the stricken ship with little power and few toilet facilities after a fire knocked out propulsion and other systems on Sunday, February 10. The crippled cruise liner Carnival Triumph limps into port late Thursday, February 14, in Mobile, Alabama. Passengers had endured five days aboard the stricken ship with little power and few toilet facilities after a fire knocked out propulsion and other systems on Sunday, February 10.
Triumph cruise ship docks
Photos: Triumph cruise ship docks in Alabama Photos: Triumph cruise ship docks in Alabama

Stuck in the Caribbean

Some passengers on Carnival's stricken cruise ship Dream are also complaining, and one key complaint is "lack of communication."

Although power has been restored and facilities are functioning again, some passengers still have to be flown back to Florida after the ship malfunctioned in the eastern Caribbean.

Cruise passengers received a letter from the captain, according to a passenger who e-mailed a photo of the correspondence to CNN.

Capt. Massimo Marino had told passengers they will be booked on flights to Orlando or another destination. Passengers with cars at Port Canaveral will be bused from Orlando to the facility about an hour away.

Members of the Howard family, who live near Chattanooga, Tennessee, were among those flying back to Orlando on Friday after the Dream trip turned into a nightmare. David Howard told CNN that while things were fine aboard the ship, he was frustrated with how his family and other passengers were treated, and by the "lack of communication."

Howard said he and his family weren't told until 1:45 a.m. Friday they had to get off the ship by 7:30 a.m., so they had to rush to pack in the middle of the night.

After disembarking, they boarded one of dozens of chartered buses, which traversed St. Maarten with a police escort to the airport, Howard said.

The captain said remaining passengers could "enjoy another day in beautiful St. Maarten" or stay onboard for a "full schedule" of activities.

"We sincerely apologize for the disappointment this unexpected change has caused and regret we were unable to provide you with the fun and memorable cruise vacation we had in store for you," he wrote.

The letter also offers passengers a three-day refund and a half-price cruise in the future.

Donahue said that in terms of reimbursing vacationers, Carnival needs to take each incident on a case-by-case basis.

"You have to consider brand reputation and what is the risk to brand reputation. You don't want passengers unfulfilled by expectations for the trip and slighted by an inadequate offer of compensation," he said. "If you are facing or trying to recover some perceived brand impairment, you may want to make sure the compensation is viewed as generous."

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In a statement, Carnival said the ship's emergency diesel generator failed. The ship's next voyage was canceled, the cruise line said.

Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen said Thursday that 4,300 guests were aboard the Dream, along with about 1,300 crew members. Carnival's website puts the ship's capacity at 3,646 passengers, but that's based on only two people per cabin, and some cabins hold more, Gulliksen explained.

There are also three- and four-person cabins aboard.

Carnival said on Friday that it had arranged for a combination of approximately 50 commercial and private chartered flights to fly the 4,363 Dream guest home from St. Maarten. Guests were given the option to return to Orlando -- the closest air gateway to Port Canaveral, where the voyage began -- or their originating city, Carnival said.

On Tuesday, Carnival announced it was conducting "a comprehensive review" of all 23 of its ships after the fire last month that crippled Triumph in the Gulf of Mexico.. Carnival President and CEO Gerry Cahill said the investigation will focus on the prevention, detection and suppression of fires, engine room redundancies, and what additional hotel facilities might be provided and might run off the emergency generators.

The review is a "positive step," Donahue said.

"If they are transparent about results of a review, I think that could go a long way to build confidence back among passengers or any prospective passengers who are reviewing some of the negative media coverage," he said. "But the key is not just that they conduct the review, but be transparent about the findings of the review and the steps they will take to address any gaps."

'Human waste all over the floor'

After Dream's problems began Wednesday, Gregg Stark, who is traveling with his wife and two young children, told CNN that conditions were deplorable.

"There's human waste all over the floor in some of the bathrooms and they're overflowing -- and in the state rooms," he said. "The elevators have not been working. They've been turning them on and off, on and off."

Triumph: Icky jobs fell to 'amazing' crew

An announcement over the ship's public address system said the crew was trying to fix the problem and was working on the generators, according to Stark. A few hours later, another announcement said the problem was worse than originally believed.

"We are not allowed off of the boat despite the fact that we have no way to use the restrooms onboard," Jonathan Evans of Reidsville, North Carolina, said in an e-mail Thursday. "The cruise director is giving passengers very limited information and tons of empty promises. What was supposed to take an hour has turned into 7-plus hours."

But Thursday afternoon, Carnival told CNN that based on conversations with the ship's management team, a look at service logs "and extensive physical monitoring of all public areas, including restrooms, throughout the night, we can confirm that only one public restroom was taken offline for cleaning based on toilet overflow and there was a total of one request for cleaning of a guest cabin bathroom.

"Aside from that, there have been no reports of issues onboard with overflowing toilets or sewage. The toilet system had periodic interruptions yesterday evening and was fully restored at approximately 12:30 a.m. this morning."

'This needs to change'

Last month, an engine room fire left the Carnival Triumph adrift in the Gulf of Mexico with more than 4,200 people aboard.

As that scheduled four-day cruise doubled in length, food was scarce, and passengers sweltered in the heat with no air conditioning. Passengers also reported overflowing toilets and human waste running down the walls in some parts of the ship.

A class-action lawsuit was filed against Carnival Corp. afterward.

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The Triumph is still being repaired at a shipyard in Mobile, Alabama, Carnival spokeswoman Joyce Oliva said.

"We are now focused on the lessons we can learn from the incident and also what additional operational redundancies might be available," Cahill, the Carnival president, said this week.

Another ship, the Carnival Splendor, had a fire in 2010 due to "a catastrophic failure of a diesel generator," he said.

In a Friday news release, Carnival said total advance bookings for 2013 are behind 2012 levels, but since January, booking volume for the rest of the year has been "running significantly higher than last year," despite "slightly higher prices."

"Despite considerable attention surrounding the Carnival Triumph, we had been encouraged to see booking volumes for Carnival Cruise Lines recover significantly in recent weeks," said Micky Arison, chief executive officer of Carnival Corp.

"Attractive pricing promotions, combined with strong support from the travel agent community and consumers who recognize the company's well-established reputation and quality product offering," were the reason, he said.

Nevertheless, Carnival stock sank Friday after a weak forecast for sales and profits this year.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, sent a letter Wednesday to Arison.

"The Coast Guard has responded to a string of 90 marine casualty incidents with passengers onboard Carnival ships in the last five years," the West Virginia Democrat wrote. "It seems that Carnival has failed to take any meaningful course of corrective action after these continual incidents. This needs to change."

Despite all the recent problems, Donahue doesn't see any long-term negative effects for Carnival or its competitors.

"I don't necessarily see this week's events, or even combined with the Triumph event, as casting a pall on the cruise industry," he said, noting that several colleagues and friends who have recently gone on cruises, including on Carnival, enjoyed their vacations.

"People generally accept that complex pieces of equipment can encounter challenges. That's not the hurdle. I don't think anybody considering the cruise would be unforgiving of an unforeseen event, because those types of events occur with complex systems. People are far less forgiving (when) communications around the events seem to be lacking," he said.

CNN's Dave Alsup, Jake Carpenter, Chuck Johnston, Tina Burnside and Marlena Baldacci contributed to this report.

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