Costa Concordia – is the truth starting to emerge?

Ever since the sinking of the Costa Concordia, the cruise line and its American owners, Carnival, have been anxious to promote the theory that the accident was down to the behaviour of a rogue Captain. It is certainly true that the actions of the Captain after the accident did nothing to help his cause but I have always been unwilling to accept such a neat swerving of blame. This PR-led led attack on the Captain does not really hold water anyway because if Captain Schettino was as incompetent as claimed (which is possible), Costa must still take responsibility for employing him.

Investigations into such major accidents take a long time to complete and it is inevitable that bits of evidence will surface or be leaked during the process which will be used by one side or the other to bolster their positions. Last week some evidence was produced in the Italian press which suggests that the organisation of Costa was far from perfect. It is claimed that several ship’s officers did not speak Italian properly and even the Captain complained about the difficulty of communicating with fellow officers on the bridge. There are also claims that many officers and crew either did not have the correct safety certificates, or that they had expired. The evacuation of the vessel certainly appeared chaotic (though, in fairness, any evacuation is going to be difficult so the passengers that survive are almost certain to be upset). The claims that the company did not know how to handle the situation are more worrying though and it is suggested that the Captain was anxious for help from his head office which was not forthcoming.

Costa say these comments are all “without foundation”. That is quite possible. Selective leaking of just the bad bits of evidence can produce a very unfair picture which should be corrected in the final report.

However, it is certainly not the first time that “chaos” has been used in reports about Costa Cruises. Neither is it a surprise to read that crew members were not properly trained. Just read through some of the many on-line passenger reviews of cruises on Costa vessels before the Concordia accident and you will pick up a recurring theme. Boarding is often referred to as a chaotic mess and meal service in the restaurants seems to be a serious problem with plenty of reports about  restaurant managers “losing control” and waiters not knowing what they were doing. Of course, it is perfectly possible that a company that seems to have problems embarking passengers or serving meals has its crews trained to perfection in emergency drills but the balance of probability suggests Costa have some very serious questions to answer.

It seems unlikely that Captain Schettino will escape blame for the accident but we have to hope that proper attention is paid to the management of Costa and their owners, Carnival. The publicity and punishment must be distributed fairly.





Cruises – Full Disclosure?

The current problems with the engine fire on the Costa Allegra do not appear to have any connection with the sinking of the Costa Concordia. I remain highly dubious about the management of Costa (and, therefore, of its parent company Carnival) but it does seem to be an unfortunate coincidence and something that could happen to even the best cruise line.

However, the incident does raise a matter of concern and one we recently mentioned in Inside Traveller.

The ship was sailing through an area where pirate attacks are common. Like other cruise lines, Costa had taken the precaution of protecting the vessel with a group of Italian marines.

The idea of sitting on a deck in the sun and relaxing is very appealing – but how relaxed would you feel if you knew the cruise line had armed guards to protect their guests?

The coast off Somalia is not the only area where cruise companies have to sail with a detachment of armed guards. Cruises from the Gulf ports – which are now being heavily promoted – also carry guards and have to pay heavy additional insurance premiums due to the extra risk.

But do the cruise companies tell their passengers about this?

Many would know about the risks of Somalian piracy but the risks for vessels sailing from Dubai and Oman are much less publicised.

It would be interesting if an American passenger were to take action against a cruise line for selling a cruise in an area where they had to use armed guards without informing their passengers.

Personally, I go on holiday to rest and I can find plenty of places in the world where I can do that without armed guards to guarantee my safety.

Carnival and its employees

The grounding of the Costa Concordia might just be a turning-point in improving standards in the cruise industry. I am certainly not alone in having had worries about the way the business has developed at enormous speed with very little regulation to control it. Safety standards, employment rights and consumer protection are just some of the areas of concern. Just think of the way that airlines are regulated and then look at the cruise business – the difference is alarming. If attention can be focused on some of these issues then, maybe, some good will come out of a horrible event.

Carnival did themselves no good at all by “generously” offering all passengers on the cruise a refund and a 30% discount off their next cruise. Quite rightly, this was described as a joke and an insult by passengers. We do not really need to worry about the passengers though. There are enough sharp lawyers acting on the case for some very substantial pay-outs to be made in the end. This will prove a very nasty loss indeed for the ship’s insurers.

But what about the crew?

The ship’s officers, who are employees of Costa, will presumably be redeployed to other vessels but the majority of the crew (waiters, sailors and entertainers) would have been employed through agencies. A group of Indonesian waiters have just been flown back home and were reluctant to talk about their experience but said no one had mentioned any compensation. So, they have lost their possessions and their jobs without notice, been flown home and, because they do not want to upset their agency, they dare not complain.

They suffered just as much trauma as the passengers but will they have sharp lawyers acting for them? Let’s hope so. 


Carnival’s “comprehensive safety audit”

When a company suffers a serious accident such as the one that happened to the Costa Concordia, it is normal for them to carry out a detailed study of safety standards in the rest of their business to reassure both themselves and their customers that all is well. Carnival have announced they will be carrying out a comprehensive review of safety across all their brands. This will be led by Captain John Humm, a retired US naval captain who is currently the group’s senior vice president in charge of maritime policy and compliance. In other words, the person who had overall responsibility for ensuring all the brands of the group operated to the best standards will now carry out a review to see why one of them might not have been operating to the best standard.

Of course, there will be other, public enquiries into the specifics of what went wrong with the Costa Concordia but if Carnival want to convince the travelling public that all their brands operate to the highest standards of safety, they need to get an outside report from respected experts. Having one department produce a report on its own failings is not going to wash.

Not so fast Carnival

Carnival Cruises have moved very quickly to blame the Captain for “serious mistakes” that appear to have caused the accident to their Costa Line vessel.

A Captain who sails far too close to the shore, does not look where he is going and then gets off before some passengers have been rescued. I wonder how many people when they read the story shrugged their shoulders and thought “typical Italian”. .

Just as Italy was beginning to recover from Berlusconi, another Italian wades in to reinforce the national image of Italians as being charming and fun-loving but not very safety-conscious. Alitalia’s international bookings probably took a dip on Sunday.

But if it is stereotypical behaviour you are looking for, the response of Carnival is straight out of some American Business School’s Damage Limitation Course. 

First, blame a “rogue individual”. If that doesn’t work, blame management at the local operating unit (Costa Cruises) but ensure that the overall brand, Carnival, remains unsullied.

Sorry, but that will not work.

There have long been concerns that all cruise companies have taken cost-cutting too far and that there have been too heavy reductions in both the number and quality of officers. If – and it is a big if – we accept the line that the accident was down to a rogue captain, Carnvial have to explain why he was employed in the first place, what supervision and testing he had had and, most importantly, what were the other officers doing on the vessel? On an aircraft, one of the roles of the First Officer is to stop the Captain doing anything unwise.

The cruise industry operates with remarkably little international supervision. It is time for a serious look at safety standards. And, as for Carnival and all their brands (Cunard, P&O, Princess, and many others), maybe they should remember the buck stops with the Board of Directors.