Carnival's Crippled Ship Expected To Hurt Cruise Business

This week's debacle on the Carnival Triumph is a setback that may cost the company as much as $80 million and hurt the industry's image. Carnival says passengers who were on the Triumph the last five days without power were miserable, but at least they were safe. Industry watchers say Carnival generally has handled the mishap well, but that the industry may need to rethink how it deal with events like power outages on floating cities than can carry more than 5,000 people.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. Last night, more than 3,000 passengers aboard the Carnival Triumph came ashore in Mobile, Alabama.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS)

WERTHEIMER: Jessica Sharp is one of the passengers you just heard cheering as that cruise ship docked. She is from Oklahoma City.

JESSICA SHARP: We are so glad that this is over now, and that we can go home and that we can go see our kids. And everybody's in a really, really good mood right now.

WERTHEIMER: For the last five days, not so much. Passengers called it the cruise from hell, as the Carnival Triumph floated without power in the Gulf of Mexico.

SHARP: The worst part, probably, has been the fact that the toilets weren't working so well. And hunting around for one that flushes was kind of difficult.

WERTHEIMER: Most of the passengers spent last night in New Orleans. Carnival says today, they'll be on charter flights to Houston. All passengers will receive a full refund, credit for a future cruise, and $500 in cash. NPR's Greg Allen reports the events of the past week are likely to have a significant impact on Carnival, and on the cruise industry.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: In a news conference earlier this week, Carnival's CEO, Gerry Cahill, laid out what has been the company's bottom line in dealing with the fire and the power outage aboard the Triumph.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)

GERRY CAHILL: Every decision we've made since Sunday morning is to ensure the safety of our guests, and to get them home as quickly as possible.

ALLEN: The ship's 3,100 passengers and thousand crew members weathered five days of uncomfortable conditions, but there were no deaths or injuries. Walt Nadolny is a former senior officer for Carnival, now an assistant professor at the State University of New York's Maritime College.

WALT NADOLNY: Their duty as a provider of transportation and vacations, number one, is to keep your passengers safe. And that overrides comfort.

ALLEN: That may be less than satisfactory to passengers who spent the last week sleeping outside on the ship's deck, and using plastic bags as bathrooms. The experience of those passengers - as related in the media via texts and cellphone calls - has been a public relations nightmare for Carnival and the entire cruise industry. It's likely to have an impact on bookings and cost real money - for Carnival, as much as $80 million, according to one analyst.

The editor-in-chief of the website CruiseCritic, Carolyn Spencer Brown, says it's already had an effect on how many of her readers feel about Carnival, long an industry leader.

CAROLYN SPENCER BROWN: I mean, you can see it from our forums. Well, people are saying, "I just don't think I have confidence in Carnival anymore." It has nothing to do with reality, but it has a lot to do with the perceptions.

ALLEN: For Carnival, the Triumph debacle comes after a year in which it saw passenger revenue down, as it struggled to deal with the Costa Concordia disaster, in which 32 people died. This time, hearing stories from onboard about raw sewage and not enough food, many have wondered why Carnival didn't consider ferrying the passengers to another cruise ship, using lifeboats or a smaller tender.

Jay Herring, a former Carnival senior officer and author of the book "The Truth about Cruise Ships," says with more than 3,000 passengers - many of them children and elderly - unless the ship is sinking, evacuating passengers over open water is just out of the question.

JAY HERRING: So imagine you have this, little bitty boat bobbing up and down, and you're trying to transfer passengers from a ship that is essentially, stationary. Walk across a gangway - it's just so dangerous.

ALLEN: Former Carnival officer Walt Nadolny says one of the cruise line's problems this week has been the extensive media coverage, which he thinks at times has verged on hysteria.

NADOLNY: Everybody thinks they're going to die on the ship. And I'm just, you know, shaking my head. Agreed - that they are in discomfort; you know, they don't have air conditioning, it's hot. The media then grabbing that bone and saying, let's blow it out of proportion.

ALLEN: But Nadolny believes this incident, coming after the Costa Concordia disaster, is a warning to an industry that's moving to bigger and bigger ships. Although the Triumph has two engine rooms, a fire in one apparently knocked out the power distribution grid for the entire ship. Nadolny believes engineers may look at redundant power distribution systems. And he says it raises a tough question: How do you evacuate ships that with passengers and crew, may have more than 8,000 people aboard?

NADOLNY: I think it's time to take a step back and say, what if you have an Arctic - a cruise to cold, polar waters, let's say; an Antarctic cruise on a large ship, and it does a Costa Concordia and goes over. How do you deal with that disaster?

ALLEN: It's a reminder that this fire and power outage, which left the Triumph adrift in good weather in the Gulf of Mexico, could have been a lot worse.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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