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Scorned cruise customers are invoking a ‘passenger bill of rights’

Norwegian passengers are upset over their treatment on a ship that ran aground.

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

Norwegian Cruise Line customers upset about how they were treated after their ship ran aground in the Dominican Republic are claiming the company has violated rules contained in a “bill of rights” for passengers.

After stranding them on the Norwegian Escape for days and staging a chaotic exit out of the Caribbean by plane, the company has offered passengers a refund along with a credit for a future trip. But the episode has raised questions about the worth of a document that imposes no legal obligation on the industry it’s meant to check.

“There were clear violations of the Passengers Bill of Rights, and this must be addressed,” passenger Jason VanDyke, of Kalamazoo, Mich., said in a letter to Norwegian Cruise Line executives.

Joann Lynn of Oviedo, Fla., also pointed to the measure in her letter to the company. In an email to The Washington Post, she said she was aware that the nine-year set of rights existed before her March 12 cruise — but isn’t sure what good that does for her now.

“I do believe our rights were violated however the bill of rights does not include detail of ramifications or steps that passengers are to take when a violation occurs,” she said. “I do not have any idea how to proceed with a violation of those rights nor do I feel that I am empowered by knowing they even exist since it does not appear that we have any recourse when those rights are violated.”

Norwegian, which canceled the next two sailings on the Escape because of repairs, did not respond to a question about cruise passenger rights. Passengers on the Escape have complained that the company failed to communicate its plans, left passengers in port for hours as the ship sailed away, mishandled flight arrangements out of the Dominican Republic and left people to pay for their own accommodations after sending them back to Florida earlier than expected.

VanDyke and Lynn both said in their letters that they wanted accountability and acknowledgment from the company, as well as changes to keep a similar mess from unfolding in the future.

So what rights do cruise passengers have? We spoke to industry experts (and critics) to find out.

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What is the cruise industry passenger bill of rights?

The Cruise Lines International Association describes it as “an explicitly stated, publicly available set of policies” that member lines have agreed to voluntarily adopt. The policies are a condition of membership in the trade group for oceangoing cruise lines and apply to all passengers who book an ocean cruise on a member line around the world.

“The purpose of the passenger bill of rights is to provide transparency, consistency and accountability for cruise passengers detailing CLIA members’ commitment to the safety, comfort and care of guests in the rare event of a mechanical failure or shipboard emergency,” the trade association said in a statement.

Cruise line policies spell out that if there’s a conflict between their own guest ticket contract and the list of rights, the rights win out.

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What rights are spelled out?

It’s a fairly long list addressing issues that could arise due to an emergency or mechanical failure. It includes:

  • The right to leave a docked ship if essential provisions can’t be provided (unless a captain’s concern for safety or customs and immigration requirements won’t allow it).
  • When a sailing is called off or shortened because of mechanical problems, passengers have the right to a full or partial refund, depending on how much was canceled. If a voyage ends early because of mechanical failures, guests have the right to be taken to the port where it was scheduled to end or to their home city. They also have the right to lodging if they are forced to disembark and need to stay overnight in an unscheduled port.
  • The right to timely information and updates about changes to the itinerary if an emergency or mechanical failure happens, along with updates about the status of those issues.
  • The right to a ship crew that is properly trained in emergency and evacuation procedures.
  • The right to have “professional emergency medical attention” available on ships that operate beyond rivers or coastal waters.
  • The right to an emergency power source in the case of a main generator failure.
  • Each cruise line’s website needs to include a toll-free phone line that passengers can call for questions or information about any aspect of shipboard operations.

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How did the bill of rights come about?

The cruise industry adopted the measure in 2013, after a bruising couple of years. In 2012, the Costa Concordia hit a rock in the waters off the Italian coast and capsized in a disaster that killed 32 people.

The following year, a fire on the Carnival Triumph knocked out power and left the ship adrift for several days. Because of the unfortunate effect on the plumbing, the voyage became known as the “poop cruise.” The ordeal was reminiscent of a similar fire on another ship, Carnival Splendor, that suffered power loss in 2010.

Cruise lines came under pressure from lawmakers to adopt a set of guarantees for passengers, similar to the rights airline passengers have if they are bumped from a flight, if their flight is canceled or significantly delayed or if they are stuck on a tarmac for several hours.

Michael Winkleman, an attorney who sues cruise lines on behalf of passengers and crew, wrote in a message that he believes the bill of rights has been a positive development.

“All cruise lines follow it and it has resulted in significant improvements for cruise passenger rights since its inception,” he said.

How are they enforced?

This is where things can get murky. The cruise association says guests are entitled to full or partial refunds for canceled or shortened cruises due to mechanical problems. But while air travelers can easily file a consumer complaint with the Department of Transportation, there’s no similar form for issues related to a cruise.

Instead, the department says cruise consumers can report complaints by phone to the Federal Maritime Commission, which will contact a cruise line on the passenger’s behalf. The commission requires cruise operators that sail from U.S. ports to be financially capable of reimbursing customers if a cruise is canceled. Cruise companies also must be able to pay claims if they are liable for injury or death.

“The final resolution of such complaints or inquiries is a matter between the cruise line and the individual,” the Transportation Department website says, noting that consumers also have to initiate action on their own.

Jim Walker, an attorney who runs the Cruise Law News site, said he has never used the policy on behalf of a client and finds it useless for that purpose.

“There’s no mechanism to enforce these rights,” he said. “And there are no remedies, there are no damages. So it’s rather meaningless quite frankly. … There’s no consequence if they violate these so-called rights.”

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