Senate considers passenger rights bill

Three cruise ships tie up in Juneau’s Gastineau Channel on Tuesday morning. Lines serving Alaska were among those defending the industry during a U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Wednesday. Photo by Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News.

Does the cruise industry do enough to keep passengers safe? And how do we know if they don’t? Those were among the questions asked at a U.S. Senate Commerce Committee meeting on Wednesday.

The focus was on the newly introduced Cruise Passenger Protection Act, sponsored by Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller.

The West Virginia Democrat cited recent fires and engine breakdowns, as well as incidents of onboard crime. He said the lines’ responses were not enough. (See a list of marine accidents since 2000 with links to more information.)

“Is the industry really trying to adopt a culture of safety? Or, are the safety reviews and temporary investments a cynical effort to counter bad publicity,” Rockefeller said.

About a million cruise ship passengers are visiting Alaska this season.  

U.S. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller questions cruise industry safety during a Wednesday hearing.

Rockefeller said they and another 20 million American cruisers need more information about their rights, as well as onboard safety.

University of Newfoundland Professor Ross Klein said liability waivers used by the lines are unreadable.

Klein, who operates the Cruise Junkie website, said his research also found the industry releases very little about rapes, assaults, robberies and burglaries.

“This analysis points to the need for better consumer protection of cruise passengers, much like the protections that are available to passengers on other modes of commercial transportation, including air carriers,” Klein said.

Industry representatives disputed those statements.

Royal Caribbean International CEO Adam Goldstein said his corporation has joined the Carnival and Norwegian lines to offer more information.

“The three largest cruise companies, making up over 85 percent of the cruise industry, have voluntarily agreed to expand reporting by posting all allegations on our websites, regardless of whether an investigation was opened or closed,” Goldstein said.

He said the information will be available starting in August.

The Cruise Lines International Association’s 26 members recently instituted a passenger’s bill of rights after a series of at-sea incidents.

Cruise researcher Klein said parts appear to conflict with liability waivers still used by the lines.

Alaska Democratic Senator Mark Begich, a Commerce Committee member, said the government should work with the industry, rather than create new regulations.

“If there’s some issues of disconnect of the rules on the ticket and the details of it and what they’re claiming to give the public, then we should help make those aligned,” Begich said.

Despite concerns, industry critics and supporters agreed that crime rates are low on the big ships.

Watch the Senate Commerce Committee meeting on cruise ship safety legislation.

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