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Grilled in Senate hearing, cruise lines agree to post information about reported crimes

Starting next week, potential passengers on the world's largest cruise lines will be able to add another piece of research to their pre-vacation planning: How many alleged crimes were reported to cruise operators.

The move to release information about reported crimes, announced Wednesday by cruise industry leaders during a hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation, comes the day after lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate introduced legislation that would require the information be made available to the public. For now, only crimes that are no longer being investigated by the FBI are included in crime statistics available to the public.

"In the spirit of transparency, the three largest cruise companies making up over 85 percent of the cruise industry have voluntarily agreed to expand that reporting," said Adam Goldstein, president and CEO of Royal Caribbean International.

He said those Miami-based companies — including Royal Caribbean Cruises, Carnival Corp. and Norwegian Cruise Line — will post all allegations, regardless of whether an investigation was opened or closed, in each of the categories required by the 2010 Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act. Those categories include sexual assault, theft greater than $10,000, tampering with the vessel, assault with serious injuries, kidnapping, U.S. national gone missing, suspicious death or homicide. The statistics, which will be posted Aug. 1, will date back to the last quarter of 2010.

The head of the Cruise Lines International Association, Christine Duffy, said in written testimony to the committee the 12 remaining oceangoing North American member lines are being asked to provide the same statistics so the trade association can post them online as well.

"Taking them at their word, it's a positive step," said Kendall Carver, chairman of the International Cruise Victims Association, which has been pressing for greater transparency about onboard crime. "I think it shows the pressure that's been brought to bear on the issue of safety."

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D.-W.Va., who chairs the committee and introduced Tuesday's bill, released a report as part of the hearing that highlighted the discrepancy between crimes reported by cruise lines to the FBI and the numbers that are disclosed publicly. The report showed that 130 alleged crimes in categories specified by the cruise safety act had been reported to the FBI in 2011 and 2012, but only 31 of those had been reported to the public during that time frame. Cruise lines reported a total of 959 alleged crimes to the FBI, the document says.

Carver and other industry watchdogs thought the 2010 Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act would make crime statistics easily available to the public; they were shocked to find that information released on a Coast Guard website after the law's passage included only a fraction of the number of incidents that had previously been disclosed. That was because of a change in language that said only closed FBI investigations would be included.

Goldstein said the new policy would allow consumers to compare crime reported on cruise ships to crime reported on land, statistics that are released by the FBI whether or not cases are still under investigation.

"There will be for the first time the ability to compare on an apples to apples basis what the crime rates are for principal categories," Goldstein said. "We're very confident that the comparison will be beneficial to the cruise industry."

Wednesday's hearing, which focused on consumer protection, follows a difficult stretch for cruise companies, which have been plagued by fires and technical problems this year. The Carnival Triumph was left without power at sea for days following a fire in February; in May, Royal Caribbean International's Grandeur of the Seas also suffered a fire but did not lose power. Rockefeller last called a hearing in March 2012 in response to the shipwreck of the Costa Concordia in Italy that killed 32 people.

"If the industry is seriously working to improve the safety and security of its ships, why have we witnessed so many serious incidents in the last 16 months?" Rockefeller asked in his opening statements. "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?"

U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Joseph Servidio, another witness, revealed that the Carnival Triumph was detained for a day last month by the agency before it returned to service because of problems with lifeboat drills, fire detection systems and fire sprinkler systems.

"Those are significant problems and, as such, we detained the vessel until they were rectified," he said, adding that the issues were taken care of by the following day.

A Carnival Cruise Lines spokeswoman said the "items for corrective action" were identified June 12 and the vessel was approved to sail on June 13, as scheduled.

Rockefeller had harsh words for Carnival Cruise Lines president and CEO Gerry Cahill, who also testified.

"It's easy to say that things happen infrequently, but when they happen, they affect an awful lot of people," Rockefeller said. "And they're happening, even to the extent that the public knows about it, more frequently than necessary."

Cahill highlighted the steps Carnival has taken since the 2010 Carnival Splendor fire and February's Triumph ordeal, including a $300 million investment in the entire fleet to upgrade backup power and fire safety equipment.

"We were able to fulfill our obligation of keeping everyone safe," Cahill said. "What we did do very unfortunately, was we really seriously put our guests in an uncomfortable position. And that bothers us a great deal."

In May, CLIA and its member lines adopted a 10-item passenger bill of rights, including the right to a refund if a trip is canceled or cut short and the right to disembark a docked ship if conditions on board are not satisfactory. But that list drew scrutiny at the hearing over how the rights would be enforced and what policies would take precedence in case of a conflict with passenger contracts of carriage.

Goldstein said the industry wanted to release the passenger list of rights quickly and said "a good number of cruise lines are in the process of trying to eliminate any perceived inconsistencies."

Rockefeller, a longtime industry critic, closed the two-hour hearing with a preview of his next move: legislation that he said would close tax loopholes that largely exempt cruise lines from paying corporate taxes.

Grilled in Senate hearing, cruise lines agree to post information about reported crimes 07/24/13 [Last modified: Thursday, July 25, 2013 12:11pm]
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