Older people, and families with young children, often choose to go on cruises because they are undoubtedly one of the safest, and most comfortable, ways to see the world. White-gloved stewards fuss over passengers, who are offered endless rounds of lobster tail and mojitos, and every imaginable form of entertainment from casinos and live music to history lessons and cooking classes.
However, the grounding of the Costa Concordia, 100 metres off the Italian island of Giglio, and the chaotic evacuation of its 4,200 passengers, raises serious questions about the safety, training and rigour in the industry. That the captain, Francisco Schettino, allegedly abandoned the 114,500-tonne, six-year-old vessel, and is now in detention for sailing off course without authorization, is worrying enough.
More troubling is the very fact that a ship of this magnitude, sailing in well-charted waters, could hit a rock, and that there were delays in the evacuation. Even the most basic precautions may not have been taken. There are reports that the ship only held safety drills every 15 days, so that not all passengers underwent a safety drill before the vessel embarked. If so, they were not briefed about the location of lifeboat muster stations and life jackets – basic and vital precautions.
There is no room for complacency in this $34-billion-a-year industry, especially as the ships grow ever larger, the technology more sophisticated and the crew and passengers more diverse. Proper management and emergency operational procedures are more crucial than crystal and fine dining.
The grounding of the Concordia killed at least six people, injured 60 and has left 16 people unaccounted for. Many had to swim ashore, because the ship’s tilt put some life rafts out of service. Imagine the human costs had the ship run into trouble further out at sea. “In the centenary year of the Titanic, we have once again been reminded of the risks involved in maritime activities,” noted the International Maritime Organization.
Passenger ship travel, at least in the developed world, remains very safe. However, Costa must re-assure the public that it has implemented all possible measures to reduce accidents at sea caused by human error, and that the crew – and passengers – are properly trained in the unlikely event that one should occur.