Cruise tragedy calls for increased focus on safety

On the heels of the Costa Concordia cruise tragedy, where a once-proud ocean going vessel now lay on its side off the coast of Italy, calls for increased safety standards and procedures are being made. While history will remember the Concordia event as more of a near-miss than a Titanic-like disaster as tabloids might have us believe, most experts agree: this can’t happen again.

As rescue workers still try to find 20-some missing passengers, blame has been placed squarely on the shoulders of the ship’s master, Captain Francesco Schettino. The ship was sailing a course approved by the cruise line, similar to an airline flight plan, when Captain Schettino chose to deviate from that plan, sailing too close to a nearby island in order to show the ship to locals.

“This route was put in correctly. The fact that it left from this course is due solely to a maneuver by the commander that was unapproved, unauthorized and unknown to Costa,” said Costa Chairman and CEO Pier Luigi Foschi in a live press conference via telephone from Italy yesterday.
Rogue move on the part of an out-of-control captain or not, it is clear that changes will have to be made in the way cruise lines do business to insure another event like this never happens again.

“The incident has many in the maritime industry and those contemplating a cruise questioning how something like this could happen” says cruise expert Paul Motter on FoxNews. “After all, the Costa Concordia, which was carrying 4,200 passengers and crew, was stocked with the state-of-the-art navigation equipment.”

Look for changes in the way cruise lines do business very soon. Maybe more focus on safety instructions, starting at embarkation. Perhaps more detail and a different way of handling safety drills and surely some sort of check system that requires more than just a Captain’s whim to change a ship’s course. But Motter urges passengers to take responsibility for their own safety with a number of suggestions.

“Choose a cruise line that specializes in your native language,” says Motter. During the Costa Concordia event, safety instructions being broadcast over the ship’s loudspeaker system were difficult to hear in any language, leaving those who did not speak the language being broadcast at a disadvantage. “Costa, MSC and other cruise lines offer cruises in as many as five languages simultaneously. Europeans are used to hearing announcements in five languages consecutively; Italian, French, German, Spanish and English. In a critical situation the idea of having to communicate in five languages is not just daunting, it can mean life or death.”

Another lesson to be learned from Costa Concordia is to avoid itineraries where passengers are allowed to embark from multiple ports. In the U.S., passengers embark and disembark at the same port in most cases. European sailings allow passengers to embark along the way.

“During a disaster, having people onboard who have not yet had a boat drill can really add to the chaos, ” says Motter, noting the International maritime law requirement that says a ship must hold its safety drill within 24 hours of sail-away. Many cruise lines have a safety drill before the ship begins to move. While procedures followed on Costa Concordia were in compliance with this rule, it left 600-some passengers who embarked the ship the day of the event, uninstructed on safety procedures, adding to the confusion of getting off the ship.

Cruise lines, appropriately, will wait until the final story is told about Costa Concordia. The ship’s “black box” of navigational data and other pertinent information was seized by local authorities in connection with their investigation of the captain. That may add information that will steer the direction the cruise industry takes.

Costa has placed priority appropriately. They still have 20-some unaccounted for passengers to find. Addressing potential environmental hazards caused by that ship laying on its side off the coast of Italy is also a priority right now. But look for changes to be coming soon, changes that will impact the on-board experience of a cruise vacation, hopefully in a safety-conscious way that will make for smooth sailing into the future.

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