Imagine that you and your family are about to embark on a cruise vacation. Like millions of Americans, you’ve been looking forward to a fun-filled vacation that the cruise line has advertised as a “once in a lifetime experience”.
Most of the time, the cruise line meets this expectation with a nice trip and safe return. But once in a while, things can go terribly wrong: ships catch fire, passengers fall overboard or get sick, crew members sexually assault passengers. Incidents like these are unfortunately also part of the cruise experience.
But unlike people who choose to vacation in the U.S., cruise ship passengers do not have immediate access to law enforcement even when they’re victims of crimes aboard ships. And if they should suffer a health emergency on a cruise, they could be hundreds of miles away from a health care facility that operates at U.S. standards. Despite these gaps in access to security and health care aboard cruise ships, the cruise industry has repeatedly assured the public that cruises are safe – though the facts I’ve uncovered as Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee tell a different story.
For many years, I’ve been working to bring more accountability to the cruise industry through rigorous oversight and better access to information for passengers. In March 2012, I held a Commerce Committee hearing on this issue after a series of safety incidents on cruise ships, most notably the Costa Concordia grounding in Italy that killed more than 30 people.
At this hearing, our witnesses raised concerns that the public was receiving incomplete information regarding alleged cruise crimes, which prompted me to launch another investigation into the cruise industry that focused on reporting of crime. In the meantime, I also reached out to the cruise lines again and asked them to explain how their safety procedures and security were effectively protecting passengers.
The results of the Committee’s investigation were alarming. We learned that hundreds of cruise crimes were not being publicly reported and, for those crimes that were being reported, consumers had no easy way of accessing this information. The Committee held another hearing to focus on this report and the challenges facing the cruise industry. At that hearing, I put cruise lines on notice that the safety and protection of passengers must be their number one priority, whether they liked it or not.
Last week, after more months of meeting resistance from an industry reluctant to change its ways, I held another hearing of the Commerce Committee so we could hear first-hand from victims of incidents and crimes on cruise ships about how things have not changed. What they had to say was alarming.
One witness bravely recounted her 2006 rape on a cruise. What should have been a happy celebration of her birthday with her best friend turned into a tragic nightmare when she was raped by a cruise line security officer. Another one of our witnesses, a lawyer representing victims of cruise crime, described a violent attack on one of his clients – a teenage girl – who was raped by two other passengers.
We also heard from a woman who told us the heartbreaking story of losing her mother after the mother suffered a medical emergency on a cruise ship. Our witness described in her testimony the horrific experience of desperately trying to seek help and medical attention for her mother, and the lack of access to medical equipment or speedy care. According to our witness, had she been able to access timely, effective medical care, her mother probably would have survived.
In addition, we heard from another victim who was a passenger last year aboard the Carnival Triumph. A fire in the ship’s engine room left passengers without electricity, water or access to a running toilet for days.
These witnesses further described the callous disregard the cruise industry showed after their harrowing experiences – from leaving one family stranded in a foreign country with no assistance during a medical emergency, to not preserving evidence that could have been used to help prosecute a rape victim’s attacker.
Sadly, their horrifying testimony is nothing new. And in spite of the evidence that crimes, fires, mechanical failures, drownings, and mishandled medical emergencies occur with disturbing regularity on cruise ships, the industry continues to deny it has a problem. Instead, the industry has reflexively fought all efforts to provide consumers more information about the risks of cruise ship vacations.
That’s where my legislation comes in. Last year, after witnessing the Costa Concordia tragedy, the Carnival Triumph debacle, and learning about the underreported number of crimes on cruise ships, I introduced the Cruise Passenger Protection Act of 2013.
This legislation would require that cruise lines publicly report all crimes aboard their ships; establish the Department of Transportation (DOT) as the lead agency for cruise passenger consumer protections; and, make it easier for consumers to report complaints about problems on cruise ships. I have also proposed simplifying ticket contracts and establishing an advisory committee at DOT to help give passengers a voice in how the cruise lines operate.
Consumers already have similar protections if they travel in airplanes or by rail, so it only makes sense that these protections are extended to cruise ships and the cruise industry. We also know from the testimony we heard last week that consumers need these protections.
So it is my hope that the cruise industry was paying attention, and that it is finally considering how to improve protections for their customers so no one has to experience what our witnesses experienced.
As I said during the hearing, the time to act is now, and I will continue pushing to make cruising safer for all families.