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How Cruise Ship Safety Oversight Works... And Doesn't Work

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By Monica Kim, Condé Nast Traveler magazine

The capsizing of the Costa Concordia has thrown a harsh spotlight on the international cruise industry. Much like the ill-fated Concordia, the $40 billion industry is being portrayed as a ship without a captain by media outlets including The New York Times. The event has also brought renewed attention to an issue that dates back to the Titanic: a faulty system of safety oversight.

The oversight system currently in place
The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) was passed by the maritime nations in 1914, spurred by public outrage over the loss of more than 1,500 people in the sinking of the Titanic. It was an international agreement that established safeguards such as ice patrols and set standard safety procedures, including the number of lifeboats required on a ship. SOLAS is now administered by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), an agency of the United Nations that updates the regulations at an annual convention (the Marine Safety Committee will next meet May 16-25, 2012).

The big problem
Though the IMO sets safety standards, critics have long argued that they are meaningless because the organization has no power to enforce them. Each ship sails under a country's flag, and that country becomes its "flag state." It is the flag state's responsibility to uphold SOLAS regulations (the Costa Concordia sailed under Italy's flag). In fact, in a 2001 speech, the former IMO Secretary General W.A. O'Neil conveyed that not all ships were being held accountable by their flag states, causing problems with safety oversight. "This flag State responsibility is at the core of the process and is applicable to all IMO Members, in equal measure," he said. "However, some of them may lack the skills and resources to carry out their responsibilities effectively."

The attempted solution
So without any jurisdiction over the countries deploying ships, the IMO emphasized the importance of a port's power and duty to inspect any incoming ships and make sure they are up to code. But a similar problem arises here: While all "port states" must check ships according to the basic SOLAS guidelines, it's up to each nation how far above and beyond those guidelines it wants to go. For example, U.S. Coast Guard officials inspect ships sailing through U.S. waters every year (checking lifeboats, structural integrity and watching safety drills to ensure the crew has been trained according to IMO laws); other countries may conduct inspections only every two, three or five years, according to Scott Elpheson, a senior marine inspector with the Cruise Ship National Center of Expertise, the Coast Guard center that trains ship inspectors. "No vessel is going to sail through our waters unless the minimum safety standards are met," says Elpheson.

Based on more than 30 years of research of maritime law, Judge Tom Dickerson, author of Travel Law, claims the U.S. has the best set of safety rules to guard passengers' rights. "When people ask me what kind of cruise they should take, I always say they should take a ship that touches a U.S. port," Dickerson says, though he could not comment on the records of other ports.

What will happen now?
In the end, the "flag states" still have the ultimate say on whether a ship and its crew are fit to sail, and their decisions are not subject to review by any international body. Marine safety advocates are hoping that the Costa Concordia accident might improve the current system. At a recent press conference in London, Christine Duffy, President and CEO of the Cruise Lines International Association, urged the IMO to carefully evaluate the findings from the Costa Concordia investigation to ensure the cruise industry remains as safe as possible. Duffy said, "While there is a great deal still not known about this incident, all of our members recognize the seriousness of these events and want to ensure we apply the lessons learned from this tragic event."

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