According to industry observers, the first two months of the newly refurbished Pride, which launched its seven-day inter-island Hawaiian service in July, has been one of the roughest cruise debuts in memory. The long-awaited first U.S.-flagged and U.S.-staffed ocean-going cruise ship in nearly 50 years has been marked by reports of staterooms going uncleaned, hours-long waits for meals and overwhelmed workers deserting the ship at every port.
"It was 10 hours before we could get our bathroom door open," said Jennifer Jopling of Plano, Tex., who with her husband, Doug, was on her third Hawaiian cruise, all with NCL. The Pride voyage, they said, cost three times what the previous one had. "They kept telling us to the use the public restrooms. We finally went down to reception and said we weren't leaving until someone came with us to open the door. It was bedtime and I didn't want to go to a public restroom to brush my teeth."
An exterior view of Norwegian Cruise Line's Pride of Aloha, the first Hawaiian island cruise of its kind.
(Tim Wright - Associated Press)
By the end of the first trip, it wasn't unusual to witness passengers shouting at staff members in the hallway. In the Crossings dining room, as two young servers bused tables after the last dinner, they chanted, "Gettin' off tomorrow and never comin' back." The final indignity for many passengers came at checkout, when those who hadn't read the fine print discovered the cruise line was charging them $10 a day per person -- $140 a trip for a couple -- as a mandatory service charge in lieu of some tipping (you were still expected to tip on bar orders and other transactions). Judging by the purple oratory echoing around the reception lobby, it was a touchy time to introduce a compulsory gratuity scheme.
(Despite published reports that the charge was non-negotiable, NCL President and CEO Colin Veitch said in a phone interview that passengers who have brought complaints to the ship's attention and still feel they didn't get satisfaction may be able to get an adjustment in the 10 percent charge at checkout time. "Agents on board the ship have that authority," Veitch said. And if you don't complain in advance? "We really want this to be an incentive for people to bring problems to our attention so we can address them," he said. "We'll take those on a case-by-case basis.")
After weeks of seeming to downplay the problems -- and driving Internet cruise chatterers into a proper frenzy -- NCL went into emergency response mode in mid-August. Letters of apology began appearing under cabin doors, and the company is offering former Pride passengers a 20 percent discount on a future NCL cruise, has pledged to reimburse half of the mandatory service charge to those who have already sailed, and, for now, has suspended the policy for new cruisers. The ship even has a new captain and director of hotels, and the line promises that "senior management" is aboard every sailing to oversee the overhaul.
"It's been quite challenging," Veitch said. "We've had teething problems. But that's what they are; there's nothing fundamentally wrong with the product or the crew that we have." He asserted that a barrage of new training and hiring efforts are beginning to take hold. "We're not satisfied yet, but we're on a steady upward trend for the last four cruises, based on passenger surveys."
The root of the problem, he said, is the huge chore of building a new crew from scratch. Unlike most start-ups, which draw fleetwide on experienced crew members from all over the world, the Pride of Aloha was obliged to hire green recruits from the United States alone. That was part of the deal when NCL won the right to loop between Oahu, Kauai, the Big Island and Maui week after week without ever touching an international port.
Hawaiian cruises famously tend to include such out-of-the-way stops as Ensenada, Mexico; Vancouver; and Fanning Island, a middle-of-nowhere atoll belonging to the Republic of Kiribati. That's because of a protectionist U.S. law known as the Jones Act, which prohibits any ship from running an all-U.S. itinerary unless it is American-flagged, American-built and American-staffed. That's usually too expensive to be profitable. But NCL, having won some vital congressional wiggle room on the "American-built" part, is trying to make a go of it with American staffs on the 853-foot Pride of Aloha and two new ships scheduled to launch over the next two years.
But in an industry where most employees come from Manila, Jakarta, Kingston and other low-wage labor pools -- workers willing to endure endless shifts and minuscule quarters -- building a crew from the likes of Honolulu, Los Angeles and New York has been tough. According to Veitch, the Pride has lost more than half its crew in the past three months, compared with an attrition rate closer to 20 percent a year in the rest of his fleet. Apparently, crewing in paradise didn't turn out to be all rum drinks and rich widows, as some recruits may have imagined.
"The turnover of our staff is what caught us off guard," Veitch said. "We didn't have enough people in reserve to make up for them. But what's going to happen over time is that people will sort themselves out into the ones who really want to make a go of this as a career."