November 13, 2019

The Costa Concordia Disaster

The cruise industry is a big, big business.  How about 20.3 million passengers annually with a $34 billion dollar annual revenue worldwide.  Just the direct spending alone by passengers and crew at all the cruise ports world-wide is estimated at $15.5 billion dollars.  Until about 10 days ago, the name Costa Concordia would have meant very little to anyone outside Italy.  But in the space of a few hours, when the ship hit the rocks off the island of Giglio, all that changed killing at least 12 people.  Carnival Corporation, which owns the Costa, is now estimating that the loss of the ship would cost the company between $85 to $95 million dollars.

As initial reports suggest, the accident was not due to a fault with the ship, but rather a serious error on the part of the captain.  But the accident, however, raises many other questions.  Why did the Costa Concordia keel over, given that water-tight bulkheads in the hull were supposed to keep the vessel upright?  Why did it take so long for the captain to give the order to abandon ship when he must have had reports about the full extent of the damage from his officers?  And why did the emergency evacuation procedure descend into chaos?

Many of the answers border on speculation.  Maybe too many bulkheads were flooded for the system to work.  Keels are built to float, not balance on land.  It was dark, which would have added to the panic, and witnesses say many lifeboats couldn’t be lowered due to the angle of the ship.  During the safety drill, passengers are instructed to go to their cabins to fetch their life jackets – a crazy system, especially on big ships.  Many passengers can’t find their cabin at sea in calm waters and with the sun shining, so how are they supposed to find it when the electricity has failed and they are panicking?

Inevitably, the size of modern cruise ships is now under scrutiny.  If things can go wrong on a ship the size of the Costa Concordia carrying 4,234 passengers, what about a ship like the Oasis of the Seas or the Allure of the Seas?  These newer boats carry the equivalent of a small town of 8,500 people.  When launched in 2006, the Costa was the world’s largest ship.  At 951 feet, it is small by comparison to today’s newer ships.  But there are other issues in play.  Engineers are now debating the stability of adding decks, especially in high winds.  And, of course, how difficult is it to evacuate 4,000 to 5,000 people from a sinking or distressed ship?

Guests aboard the Carnival Dream woke up to the news that their scheduled stop in San Juan was cancelled because the ship was too large for the pier.  The ship’s captain also told the guests that they tried two other piers, but there were issues with the draft of the boat on both piers.  If you measure the length of most modern cruise ships, they are all longer than the Titanic was.  The Costa Concordia is 70 feet longer than the Titanic.  However, when you measure size by gross tonnage, the Titanic was 46,000 gross tons, but today a 70,000 ton cruise ship is small.  The Costa Concordia is 114,500 gross tons.

It takes about 5 miles to turn a modern aircraft carrier around.  The cruise industry is no different.  There have been nine or more newly built cruise ships added every year since 2001, all at 100,000 tons or greater.  The average cruise ship today carries 2,900 passengers.  Currently, there are 256 cruise ships registered around the world, but only one of them is registered in the U.S.  Cruise ships are supposed to follow minimum safety codes established by the International Maritime Organization, an arm of the United Nations.  The codes include numbers of life boats, life jackets and a requirement to stage a life boat drill within 24 hours of departure.  But enforcement varies, depending upon the ship’s home port and the country in which it is registered.  Foreign-flagged ships are subject to only some U.S. laws.

I think now is the time to re-examine international safety standards relative to the size of today’s cruise ships.  While technology has improved over time, human error will never be obsolete.  With today’s ships holding as many as 6,000 people, passengers can’t afford to solely rely on crew members to effectively handle an emergency. I think the size of today’s cruise ships is becoming a problem relative to safety.  Some maritime unions say that many cruise ships are unsafe because of their design.  It is definitely time to review the cruise industry and its ships.

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Written by
Donald Wittmer

DONALD WITTMER is a retired business executive who held key roles in the automotive and banking sectors. For a time, he also served as a Fiscal Agency Manager for the Detroit branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. He received his undergraduate degree from Cincinnati's Xavier University, an M.A. in business management from Central Michigan University, and earned certification in bank operations from the School of Banking at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A husband, father, and grandfather, he teaches part-time at the Kent Place School for Girls in Summit, New Jersey.

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Written by Donald Wittmer
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