IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

High-seas safety in spotlight a year after deadly Costa Concordia crash

The scene off the coast of the Italian island of Giglio this weekend looks eerily similar to that of a year ago when the Costa Concordia came to rest on its side after a deadly accident.

On Jan. 13, 2012, Francesco Schettino, the ship's captain, performed a "sail-by" stunt, bringing the massive luxury cruise liner too close to the island.

“It was a tragedy that never should have happened, caused by a rogue captain who didn't follow the rules,” said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic.

The incident was an anomaly, she added, during which passengers were given poor instructions after the ship deviated from the scheduled route.

The Concordia accident left 32 passengers and crewmembers dead, and was a wake-up call for the cruise industry. Since, there have been significant safety and crisis management improvements, a global industry restructuring aimed at unifying standards, and increased personal responsibility, experts say.

Stricter safety drills
There has since been a crackdown on the informal practice of sail-by salutes, Brown said, as well as some other major changes.

Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) – the trade group representing major cruise lines serving North America – and the European Cruise Council (ECC) created a Global Cruise Industry Operational Safety Review days after the Concordia ran aground. “We worked throughout the year to improve and enhance safety, said Christine Duffy, CLIA's president and chief executive.

Ten new polices suggested by the Review were adopted and implemented by CLIA members. 

One policy details how muster drills – passenger emergency drills – are conducted. Under the new policy, drills must be conducted before departing from port. Previously, they had to be held within 24 hours of sailing. (Passengers who boarded the Costa Concordia in Rome did not have a drill before the crash occurred, but the ship did not go against standard procedure at the time.) Drills also must include other elements, including when and how to use a life jacket, the location of life jackets and descriptions of emergency routing systems and signals.

Many cruise lines previously adopted best practices that went beyond CLIA requirements and international law, but all members are now required to adhere to the new policies, Duffy said.

Worldwide effort
CLIA worked closely with the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a specialized United Nations agency that oversees maritime safety. “But we didn’t want to wait until the laws were changed, which would take some time,” Duffy said. The new policies exceed requirements set by IMO through the Safety of Life at Sea convention, though the agency recently approved incorporation of mandatory muster of passengers prior to departure from port. Others are expected in the future, Duffy said.

Late last year, nine cruise industry associations from around the world, including CLIA, announced an agreement to operate under a common umbrella organization to standardize policies. Safety measures recently adopted by U.S. and European members are expected to be implemented by all global members in 2013.

It's good progress, said Douglas Ward, author of "Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships 2013," but some non-CLIA members "might think that regulations are being forced upon them by the 'corporate giant' in the USA."

Safety rules do not apply to small cruise ships, ferries, tour boats and other smaller passenger-toting ships around the world, Ward said. "One thing is certain: The IMO will enact more rules and regulations that will need to be incorporated into future ship design and operation in the interest of increased safety for all. But the rules only apply to the 130-plus nations that are signatories to the IMO conventions.”

The new safety standards will have little impact on consumer choice, predicts James Petrick, professor and research fellow in the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences at Texas A&M University. “From a passenger’s standpoint, even after the Concordia disaster, safety is still not much of a concern.  People will choose to cruise or not, based on their images of what cruising will be like, and perceptions of safety will only be part of the images of a minority of potential passengers.”  

'Now there are consequences'
People familiar with the cruise travel industry have noticed tightened safety procedures and a fundamental attitude change among passengers. 

“It forced a dialog and raised questions,” said Kimberly Wilson Wetty, co-president of Valerie Wilson Travel in New York. And while safety drills were mandatory and passengers could be prevented from sailing if they did not attend, in the past “if you didn’t show up, I’m not sure there were a lot of consequences,” she said. "Now there are consequences." Wetty, who took a family cruise last summer, said “we really paid more attention” than during previous cruises. “I was more aware and the proceedings had a more serious tone. I came away with the feeling that it was incredibly comprehensive.” 

Dennis Nienkerk, a luxury cruise specialist with Strong Travel Services in Dallas, agrees. “There is a palpably increased sense of seriousness among guests and crew members, who make sure all guests comply," he wrote in an email from Easter Island during a Oceania Marina cruise. "Crew members have told me on this cruise that, since Concordia, the frequency of their own drills have increased dramatically.”

Prior to the Concordia disaster, said Cruise Critic's Brown, people didn’t take muster drills seriously, and would sometimes show up with beers – or even hide in bathrooms rather than attend – and would later boast about it. But on recent cruises, “some people even asked questions ... I was blown away by that,” she said, noting that personal accountability is a good thing. “At some point, some of the responsibility for safety is yours.”