Cruise Ship Sails Under American Flag

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Norwegian Cruise Line recently launched the Pride of America, the first new U.S.-flagged cruise ship built in 50 years. The U.S. flag means it can travel directly from U.S. port to U.S. port, unlike most ocean liners, which are registered in foreign countries. But it also has to obey U.S. labor laws and minimum wage requirements. Robert Smith reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

This afternoon, a new cruise ship sailed out of New York Harbor displaying an unusual sight. The American flag was flying atop the mast. That means the ship, owned by the Norwegian Line is registered in the United States. It's the first newly built ocean liner to be registered under the US flag in half a century. As NPR's Robert Smith reports, operating an American flagship is rare because it's so much more expensive, but it does have some competitive advantages.

ROBERT SMITH reporting:

Eleven stories above New York Harbor, up on the pool deck, the US secretary of Labor, Elaine Chao, prepares to christen the newest United States ship.

Secretary ELAINE CHAO (US Department of Labor): It is with great joy that I name this ship Pride of America. Here it goes.

(Soundbite of cheers and music)

SMITH: The bottle of champagne swings against the bow and the Pride of America, the largest US flagship ever built, is ready to sail. The decision to register in the United States means much more than just plastering the ship with red, white and blue. The Pride of America must obey strict US environmental and labor laws and have an all-American crew. Secretary Chao says that can only help the US maritime industry.

Sec. CHAO: Hopefully this will be a revival for the Merchant Marines. This is a very, very good day for American workers.

SMITH: Down on the atrium level of the ship, the vice president of Norwegian Cruise Lines, Andy Stuart, explains why they need the US flag.

Mr. ANDY STUART (Norwegian Cruise Lines): It's an opportunity for us to sail in the islands of Hawaii without going to a foreign port.

SMITH: You see, for more than a century, foreign flagships have been forbidden to take passengers solely between US ports. Most cruises get around this by conveniently making a stop in Canada or Mexico or Aruba. But Hawaii's more than a thousand miles from a foreign port.

Mr. STUART: It's very important sailing in Hawaii to fly the US flag and offer these interisland cruises out of Honolulu.

SMITH: It's a business gamble. Norwegian's now the only major cruise line that offers an all-Hawaiian itinerary. But it comes at a price. A federal report notes that it could double the cost of payroll to employ Americans on these ships. The last cruise line to try it went bankrupt. And as Stuart says, finding trained American cruise workers isn't easy.

Mr. STUART: So we're really starting from scratch finding a whole new work force to work aboard cruise ships who are Americans, and that's probably been our largest challenge actually.

SMITH: Norwegian runs one other American flagship, the Pride of Aloha, an older, refurbished ocean liner. When it launched with an American crew last year, passengers complained about its lousy service. Chris Alpine, a comedian who performed on that ship and the new Pride of America, says there's a style difference between American and foreign workers.

Mr. CHRIS ALPINE (Comedian): I think the foreign crew have been on ships long enough that they understand what needs to be done and that there are no set hours, whereas Americans I think are--still haven't gotten to the point yet where they realize this really is about the passengers.

(Soundbite of christening party)

Unidentified Man: Let me hear you in the balcony.

SMITH: At the christening party, travel agents invited to tour the ship say they've been assured that the American crew has been trained better this time, and they say the whole American theme that runs throughout the ship actually makes it easier to sell. Kathleen Cooney(ph) is a travel agent on Long Island.

Ms. KATHLEEN COONEY (Travel Agent): It has a theme. There's something you can push, you know? You say of the America, you know, it's got the Thomas Jefferson restaurant. It's got the Alaskan Gold Rush bar. I mean, all these things are trigger words for Americans.

SMITH: And it seems to be working. Norwegian says that advanced bookings for this summer are strong.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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