Too big to sail question in Costa Concordia sinking fiasco

Do we really want the fate of thousands resting in the hands of one captain?
Costa Cruises chairman and CEO Pierluigi Foschi. The firm has blamed the ships captain for the disaster
By Bloomberg
Thu 19 Jan 2012 02:44 PM

In 1912,
the RMS Titanic, the largest and most advanced passenger liner of its day, sank
in the Atlantic Ocean, reminding the world there was no such thing as an
invincible ship.

The
Costa Concordia
, a cruise ship so enormous that it is essentially a floating
town, lies half submerged off the coast of Italy, making the same point today.
The Titanic tragedy, which claimed some 1,500 lives, ushered in a new era in
maritime safety law. A century later, the Costa Concordia debacle, in which 11
people have died and more than 20 are missing, raises the question of whether
those measures are being effectively enforced.

The answer
has direct implications for millions of seaborne travelers. The number of
passengers on cruise ships has grown every year by an average of 7.6 percent
since 1980, reaching 15 million last year.

To
contain the pools, gyms, zip-lines, rock-climbing facades and multiple
restaurants today’s cruisers expect, the ships keep getting bigger and bigger.
The Costa Concordia carried more than 4,000 passengers and crew. Larger ships
hold 6,000 people. With so many passengers on board comes the potential for
great loss should disaster strike.

For the
Costa Concordia, that moment came on Jan 13, when its captain, Francesco
Schettino, deviated from an authorized, computerized course to maneuver the
ship close to the island of Giglio and ran it into a reef.

[Click here for images]

The
cruise line, Costa Crociere, and its parent, Carnival, have been eager to paint
the disaster as the fault of Schettino, who is under house arrest and is
expected to be charged with manslaughter. The companies’ position may be
justified, but only up to a point. Costa Crociere has acknowledged previously
giving Schettino permission to skirt the coast of Giglio. The practice of
saluting ports in this way demands scrutiny. So does the record of the captain
- who not only wrecked the ship but also abandoned it and refused an order by
the Italian Coast Guard to return to help evacuate passengers - and the competence
of those who promoted him.

Regardless,
the responsibility for what happened after the ship ran aground suggests a wider
circle of blame.

Passenger
accounts strongly suggest that the Costa Concordia crew lacked training and
discipline, and ignored basic international standards for passenger safety. At
least some passengers say they received no safety briefing onboard. When the
ship ran aground, passengers were given conflicting instructions about whether
to stay in their rooms or abandon the Costa Concordia. Crew assistance to
passengers trying to get off the listing vessel was haphazard at best, leading
to panic and chaos.

The
International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, adopted after the
Titanic sank, clearly states that there should have been an emergency drill
within 24 hours of the start of the ship’s voyage. Passengers who boarded
afterward should have received safety briefings. From the moment the captain
gave the signal to abandon ship, the crew should have loaded and launched the
lifeboats within 30 minutes. As the search for missing vacationers attests,
that was not accomplished.

Clearing
the ship of all passengers in half an hour may sound like a tall order for a
vessel with more than 4,000 people aboard. It’s not. First, for every three
passengers, one crew member was there to assist with the effort. Second, these
large ships are designed to hit a 30-minute evacuation deadline. Cruise ships
that take on or drop off passengers at U.S. ports must pass this test twice a
year in drills required and monitored by the U.S. Coast Guard.

The U.S.
Coast Guard also requires that such ships present records proving that they
have completed fire and evacuation drills once a week and that each crew member
has participated in such drills at least once a month. These standards,
established by the Safety of Life at Sea convention, have been promulgated by
the International Maritime Organization. But as part of the United Nations, the
organization relies on the coast guards and navies of member states to enforce
the rules.

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The
Costa Concordia, which was plying a circular route around the Mediterranean,
was well beyond the jurisdiction of the U.S. Coast Guard. Further investigation
will determine whether the crew was sufficiently trained, and whether the
maritime authorities of Italy, where the ship is flagged, and the other ports
it visited were vigilant in enforcing the international standards. Any deficiencies
will need to be addressed.

In the
meantime, the ship’s ultimate owner, Carnival, which dominates the cruise
industry with 49 percent of the business, should tighten the discipline on its
ships, beginning with stricter control of routes, passenger safety briefings
and crew training. The No. 2 in the industry, Royal Caribbean, would probably
follow suit. Together, the companies control more than 70 percent of all
cruising.

Both are
already suffering the consequences of falling public confidence. Not only are
travel agents reporting a drop in bookings during what should be peak season,
but Carnival stock tumbled 14 percent after the shipwreck and Royal Caribbean
fell 5 percent. If the companies take responsible action now, they would
protect their businesses and perhaps prevent a new disaster.

While
they’re at it, they might want to reconsider an old question from a new
perspective: How big is too big? For years, industry insiders have debated ship
sizing by looking at factors such as hull safety and shipboard experience. This
most recent accident suggests a different line of inquiry: However many
passengers a ship has, their safety depends critically on the captain, who may
fail miserably. Do we want the fate of 6,000 pleasure-seekers resting on the
judgment of just one man?

(This is
a Bloomberg Views piece)

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