Once stranded, Carnival cruise ship ready to sail again

A Navy Seahawk helicopter prepares to drop supplies Nov. 9, 2010, onto the Carnival Splendor cruise ship during relief efforts in waters off Mexico's Baja Peninsula.Gregory Bull / AP
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Carnival Splendor — the infamous cruise ship that was paralyzed by fire in November, stranding thousands of passengers at sea for three days and prompting company executives to publicly pledge fare refunds — is set to sail again.

On Sunday, Splendor will embark sporting two new generators, one new engine and a fresh crowd of smiling guests.

In its wake, however, some castaways are grumbling about vows not kept, travel expenses not paid and numerous communications Carnival never answered or acknowledged.

“All guests will be receiving ... reimbursement for transportation costs,” the cruise line said in a letter to its 3,299 Splendor passengers in November.

At least seven passengers claim they have not been compensated for the airfare, hotel and shuttle fees incurred while traveling to or from the cruise ship — bills ranging from $180 to $5,525.

Meanwhile, several travel agents contend Carnival has “stiffed” them on incentive-based bonuses from the November voyage and are openly steering clients to other cruise lines. The owner of a Kansas City, Mo., travel agency says Carnival has not paid him $10,000 he believes he is due for more than 150 passengers his company booked on Splendor’s disastrous trip.

Travel agents are “an important part of our distribution process,” Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen said. He apologized for “delays in response time” caused by an “overwhelming number of calls from guests wishing to rebook.”

Compensated, rebooked and pleased
Due to the length of time it took to repair the Splendor, Carnival canceled more than a dozen scheduled voyages. The vast majority of the 47,000 travelers whose vacations were affected, Gulliksen added, already have rebooked their free cruises with Carnival and “were pleased with the way Carnival handled the situation and felt the compensation that we provided was extremely fair.”

One of those happy customers is newlywed Candice Van Leeuwen of Moreno Valley, Calif., whose honeymoon cruise happened to be on the Splendor last November. She and her husband, Brian, already have rebooked their free Carnival trip — in March on the Splendor. She said Carnival was “on top of it,” in terms of sending the couple their fare refund and living up to its promises. She acknowledged, however, that her friends are questioning her for sailing again on the Splendor.

“They say, ‘You're going back on that boat? I can't believe you'd go back on the same boat.’ Are you kidding me? They've gone through every precaution to make sure nothing happens on that boat again,” Van Leeuwen said.

Complaints investigated by msnbc.com center on a group of 136 passengers and 22 performers who were traveling with Kansas City, Mo.-based magician David Sandy to participate in a series of magic-themed events, shows and workshops aboard the Splendor. None of the complaints involved cruise ship fare refunds.

'Do the right thing'
John and Tawnya Carey of Reno, Nevada, said they have not been reimbursed for about $180 in travel costs they incurred before boarding the Splendor.

“I’m not getting any kind of reply to my e-mails and I’ve now sent them five,” said John Carey, a customer service manager. “From a [public relations] perspective, the small amount Carnival is saving by nickel and diming its passengers just doesn’t pay for itself.”

Gulliksen said the Careys will not get a check for their pre-trip travel expenses.

“We don’t tell out-of-town guests that they need to arrive the night before,” Gulliksen said. “We only reimbursed transportation expenses to get to and from the ship and not hotel stays prior to the cruise.”

But Kansas City, Mo., travel agent JoAnne Weeks, who booked Sandy’s 136 guests on the Splendor, said Carnival always “strongly suggests” that its out-of-town guests arrive in their port cities one day before cruises depart.

“This is due to limited time to arrive on the day the ship departs, and to ensure they are on board at least 90 minutes prior to sailing,” Weeks said. “This is mandated by Homeland Security.”

Chuck Mardiks, managing director of MMG Mardiks, a public relations firm in New York City, lauded the cruise line's early apology and its compensation package, but said “it's discouraging” to hear the types of complaints being leveled now by some passengers. “It really is so simple to do the right thing.”

“This industry is about hospitality — or used to be anyway,” Mardiks said. “But when you let the [chief financial officer] run the company, this is what happens. They're concentrating so much on how 'We've got to maintain our costs so here's how much you can give them, no more, no less.' They try to get away with it until somebody yells loud enough.”

As Splendor was towed to port on Nov. 11, Sandy said he urged his group to publicly commend Carnival’s handling of the crisis. He also personally paid for the airfare, hotels and related travel expenses incurred by his 22 performers — a cost of $5,525. He submitted those receipts to Carnival multiple times. More than three months later, he has not been reimbursed.

'Where's my money?'
“[Carnival CEO] Gerry Cahill got on TV at the dock and said, ‘We’re going to give everybody's travel expenses back.’ Well, here are my receipts. Where’s my money?” Sandy said.

In late November, Sandy convinced Carnival to reimburse all of his 136 magic cruise passengers the $449 each paid Sandy in “registration fees” to attend his onboard classes and shows. Those refunds were sent directly to the passengers.

Asked why Carnival has not refunded Sandy for his $5,525 in documented travel expenses, Gulliksen said the money Carnival already sent to members of Sandy's group to offset their registration fees “is enough to cover the travel expenses for Mr. Sandy’s 22 performers.”

Sandy disagrees. “Those are two completely separate issues. My performers were passengers too — and Carnival has repaid travel expenses to all individual passengers. You can’t pick and choose whom you’re going to refund when everybody was in the same boat.”

Splendor passenger Gary Dunn said he is still owed about $600 for a hotel room and a meal — costs he and his wife, Caterina, incurred as they drove home after the ship returned to port. Dunn, a travel agent, said he faxed Carnival his receipts in mid-December, but has received no communications from the company. “I think people understand the length of time. It’s more about the responsiveness,” he said. “It’s about customer service.”

Gulliksen said he checked with the company’s guest care department on the Dunns’ claim and was told “they have not received any receipts for travel expenses from Mr. and Mrs. Dunn.”

“Much of the delay in processing was related to air-related refunds as we had to validate charges with the airlines and were dealing with some fraudulent or invalid claims,” Gulliksen added. “At the time airlines were quite busy dealing with their own issues, including canceled and delayed flights due to weather, which further delayed the refund process.”

Sandy, the magician, arranged the cruise through Cruise Holidays of Kansas City. Mark Comfort, the agency's co-owner, said Carnival still owes him slightly more than $10,000 for incentive-based compensation tied to the November Splendor bookings — payments beyond commissions, and a standard part of the cruise business.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever been stiffed by any cruise line,” Comfort said. “Across the industry there are hundreds upon hundreds of agents who have compensation due them [from Carnival] that wasn’t paid. It’s not fair. It’s not right.”

This, in turn, has prompted some travel agents — including Gary Dunn — to stop promoting Carnival and to push clients to other cruise companies.

Asked if Carnival had paid travel agents the full compensation amounts that had been previously agreed upon, Gulliksen replied: “Carnival protected all commissions paid on that particular sailing.”

In answering the question that way, Comfort contends, Carnival is parsing words and avoiding the real issue. “It’s nothing but greed not to have done the right thing on this,” he said.

This, in turn, will further fan the travel agents’ revolt against Carnival.

“I can’t tell you how many hundred of thousands of dollars this will cost Carnival — not just with our business but other agents that have said enough’s enough with Carnival,” Comfort said. “If you’re not going to support us, we’re not going to support you. We have discontinued our relationship totally.

“Carnival is tearing down and ruining their (agent-based) distribution system. And it’s just a shame.”

Bill Briggs is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com and author of the new, nonfiction book, "The Third Miracle."