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MIAMI — One of the largest cruise ships in 1985 was the 46,000-ton Carnival Holiday. Ten years ago, the biggest, the Queen Mary 2, was three times as large. Today’s record holders are two 225,000-ton ships whose displacement, a measure of a ship’s weight, is about the same as that of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier.
Cruise ships keep getting bigger and more popular. The Cruise Lines International Association said that last year its North American cruise line members carried about 17 million passengers, up from 7 million in 2000. But the expansion in ship size is worrying safety experts, lawmakers, and regulators, who are pushing for more accountability, saying the supersize craze is fraught with potential peril for passengers and crew.
“Cruise ships operate in a void from the standpoint of oversight and enforcement,” said James Hall, a safety management consultant and the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board between 1994 and 2001. “The industry has been very fortunate until now.”
The perils were most visible last year when the Costa Concordia, owned by the Carnival Corp., which is based in Miami, capsized off Italy. The accident killed 32 people and revealed fatal lapses in safety and emergency procedures.
In February, a fire crippled the Carnival Triumph, stranding thousands without power for four days in the Gulf of Mexico until the ship was towed to shore. Another blaze forced Royal Caribbean’s Grandeur of the Seas to a port in the Bahamas in May.
The string of accidents and fires has heightened concerns about the ability of megaships to handle emergencies or large-scale evacuations at sea. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D., W.Va.) introduced legislation this summer that would strengthen federal oversight of cruise lines’ safety procedures and consumer protections.
Cruise operators point out that bigger ships have more fire safety equipment and contend they are safer. After a fire aboard the Carnival Splendor three years ago, Carnival adopted new training procedures and added safety features that it says helped with the rapid detection and suppression of the fire on the Triumph.
After the Triumph fire, Carnival also announced it would spend $700 million to improve its safety operations, including $300 million on its fleet of 24 Carnival Cruise Lines ships. Carnival is the largest cruise operator, owning about half of all cruise ships worldwide.
“We have over time improved the safety of our vessels by better training and better technology and learning from incidents that have happened over the years,” said Mark Jackson, Carnival’s vice president for technical operations, who joined the company in January after 24 years with the Coast Guard.
Some experts doubt that ships can grow much larger than the current behemoths, marvels of naval engineering that combine cutting-edge technology and entertainment. Today’s biggest ship, Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas, has 2,706 rooms, 16 decks, 22 restaurants, 20 bars, and 10 hot tubs, as well as a shopping mall, a casino, a water park, a half-mile track, a zip line, miniature golf, and Broadway-style live shows. It can accommodate nearly 6,300 passengers and 2,394 crew members — the equivalent of a small town towering over the clear blue waters of the Caribbean Sea. It measures 1,188 feet long. Its sister ship, the Oasis of the Seas, is 2 inches shorter.
Experts point out that larger ships have larger challenges. For instance, they have fewer options in an emergency, said Michael Bruno, dean of the engineering school at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., and former chairman of the National Research Council’s Marine Board. Many ports can’t handle the largest ships.
“Given the size of today’s ships, any problem immediately becomes a very big problem,” Mr. Bruno said. “I sometimes worry about the options that are available.”
A recent report by the Coast Guard on the Splendor fire revealed glaring problems with the crew’s firefighting abilities as well as failures in fire safety equipment.
The investigation did not address the size of the ship, which carried 3,299 passengers. But it showed that big vessels can quickly become crippled by small fires that disable complex systems. No passengers were hurt, but the damage to the engine room disabled the ship’s power and forced it to be towed to port in San Diego.
The investigation found a wide range of problems with the engine’s maintenance history as well as missing fire-safety records. No fire drills had been conducted in the engine room for six months. Emergency sprinklers were turned off by mistake and then doused the wrong parts of the engine room. Believing the fire had been contained, the captain vented the engine room to clear out the smoke. He reignited the fire instead.
In July, the Coast Guard said cruise ships would need to conduct periodic engine-room fire drills.
Bud Darr, the senior vice president for technical and regulatory affairs at the Cruise Lines International Association, the industry’s trade group, said today’s ships operate under layers of oversight.
The Coast Guard inspects each ship that calls at U.S. ports at least once a year and enforces national and international norms. Private auditors, hired by cruise operators, perform frequent safety reviews, including comprehensive annual checks that last 7 to 10 days, he said, and flag countries like the Bahamas or Panama, where most cruise ships are registered, provide their own oversight.
“We are subject to very close scrutiny,” Mr. Darr said. “The standards are universal.”
While ships are becoming bigger, the burden on crew members is growing. The Queen Elizabeth 2, which was launched in 1969, had one crew member for about 1.8 passengers. On the Triumph, the ratio was one crew member for every 2.8 passengers. The issue is also complicated by language and communication problems and a high crew turnover rate that can reach 35 percent a year.
Safety rules also state that lifeboats should not carry more than 150 people. But the two largest ships, the Allure of the Seas and the Oasis of the Seas, have much bigger lifeboats, for 370 people, because of a provision of the 2010 rules that allows for exemptions if the cruise line can demonstrate an equivalent level of safety.
Those bigger lifeboats have only enough room for passengers. To evacuate the more than 2,300 crew members, the ships are equipped with inflatable rafts that would have to be entered through 59-foot evacuation chutes.
“The simple problem is they are building them too big and putting too many people aboard,” said Capt. William H. Doherty, a former safety manager for Norwegian Cruise Lines, the world’s third-largest cruise operator, and now the director of maritime relations at the Nexus Consulting Group.
“My answer is they probably exceeded the point of manageability,” he said.
He added, “The magnitude of the problem is much bigger than the cruise industry wants to acknowledge.”