Illustration by Bloomberg View
Illustration by Bloomberg View

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.

Deviation From Course

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.

The cruise line, Costa Crociere SpA, and its parent, Carnival Corp., 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.

Weekly Drills Required

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.

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?

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