Images of the capsized Costa Concordia cruise liner are still fresh in the minds of people the world over. And another cruise ship saga, the stranded Carnival Triumph in the Gulf, even played out on the stage of Saturday Night Live.
These real-world tragedies aren't just grabbing the attention of the media and entertainment industries. Lawmakers have taken note.
Senator Charles E. Schumer has proposed a Cruise Ship Passenger Bill of Rights. In a press release, Schumer says the cruise line industry essentially has been operating outside the bounds of U.S. enforcement, and it has become the wild west of the travel industry.
"It’s time to rein them in before anyone else gets hurt,” said Schumer. "This bill of rights, based on work we've done with the airline industry, will ensure that passengers aren't forced to live in third-world conditions or put their lives at risk when they go on vacation."
The regulations would provide minimal guarantees to passengers, such as the right to disembark a docked ship if basic provisions cannot be adequately provided on board. Other rights include refunds for abruptly cancelled trips due to mechanical failures, on-board medical professionals, and backup power in the event of generator failure.
"It’s been a long time coming. There really is very little, if any, regulation of the cruise line industry," says Hyram Montero, P.A., and President of Montero Law in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "Passengers are really are at the mercy of the operators."
Schumer is modeling his proposal off of the 2011 Airline Passenger Bill of Rights, which limits the amount of time air travelers can idle on planes stuck on a tarmac, among other consumer protections.
But are the airline and cruise line industries a good apples-to-apples comparison?
One expert says no. Dr. Andrew O. Coggins Jr. is a professor of management at Pace University’s Lubin School of Business who specializes in cruise industry and travel and tourism management. Coggins told CruiseCritic.com that legally, the airline and cruise industries are regulated differently.
Cruise liners operate under the laws of the International Maritime Organization, or IMO, and the governments of the flag under which they sail. But airlines are regulated by the governments of both the country in which they are based, and, when landed, by the country they are in.
This means that the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights applies to U.S. airlines as well as foreign airlines that fly into U.S. airports. On the other hand, Coggins explains, once cruise liners have sailed beyond 200 miles from the U.S. coast, they are regulated by the law of the “high seas,” which is the IMO and the regulations of their flag country.
Instead of a U.S. law being enacted, Coggins says the Cruise Lines International Association, or CLIA, could develop such a bill of rights. It wouldn’t be legally binding, but it could be a requirement for CLIA membership.
Montero counters that laws governing the aviation industry can, in fact, act as a mold for regulations of the cruise industry. He points to the Montreal Convention, a treaty adopted by member states of the International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO, that was ratified into law by the U.S. in 2003. The agreement established and modernized rules to hold airlines accountable to air travelers.
Timing is also of the essence in this regulatory proposal. Laws that made sense for the airline industry even just a couple of years ago may not translate into the same scenario for the cruise line industry today.
According to Skift.com, Mark Mogel, who played an important role in advocating for the airline passenger bill of rights with FlyersRights.org, feels social media trumps government regulation in ensuring cruise passengers have the best experience possible.
"Now, social media is far more effective in influencing corporate best practices and driving out bad actors in the cruise and any other travel industry," Mogel says. "And political grandstanding and government regulations are the last thing consumers need."
In addition to the cruise line disasters that made headlines, plenty more problems aboard cruise ships abound under the radar.
Passengers who have been wronged by cruise companies may hope these proposed regulations to cruise to victory so they can have some legal recourse.
"It’s extremely difficult to successfully present a lawsuit against the cruise line industry," says Montero. "You have to navigate the potholes and obstacle courses that have been created by the industry."