Cruise line operations managers are seasoned sailors employed by cruise lines to make daily operational decisions. They also have a reputation for being unflappable in stressful situations. But managers for Royal Caribbean International and Carnival Cruise Lines have been getting the ultimate test of their cool under pressure these past two weeks with three hurricanes in a row and a tropical storm in the Pacific.
“We’ve gone through 36 hurricane seasons,” says Tim Gallagher, Carnival’s vice president of public relations, “So it’s not really new to us.” Carnival activated its emergency command center last week when Hurricane Gustav strengthened and threatened the line’s homeports of Galveston and Mobile.
Gallagher says the command center is a conference room located in a “hurricane resistant” area of Carnival Cruise Lines’ complex – an important factor if the storms directly impact the South Florida area. The entire building is supported by generator backup so the command center has an uninterrupted power supply.
Inside the situation room are multiple large-screen televisions with information from the National Hurricane Center, NOAA, satellite weather information, and a map showing the locations of various ships. Additionally, there are multiple computer connections for laptops and phone land lines so Carnival can speak directly to any ship’s bridge and its captain.
Gallagher says meetings between various departments are convened three times a day — more if necessary. Carnival’s command center is headed up by the vice president of port operations, Captain Domenico Tringale. His department monitors the storms, stays in touch with the U.S. Coast Guard, and keeps tabs on ports to come up with the safest strategy for all affected vessels.
In turn, port operations coordinates with the various departments at Carnival. For example, notifying the air/sea department who may have to change flights or ground transportation for affected customers. In addition, public relations will get the word out to the media, post information on the company’s Web site, and work with affected ships in communicating port changes to the guests.
Likewise, Royal Caribbean International has a very similar operation set up to Carnival. ”I remember a few times when we had sleepovers in the office keeping track of all the ships while hurricanes were blowing outside,” said Michael Sheehan, associate vice president of corporate communications at Royal Caribbean.
He notes it’s a complex operation that requires enormous teamwork. “There is no one way to deal with a hurricane,” says Sheehan. He says each storm is dealt with on a case by case basis with factors including size, speed, and direction in order to figure out how it will impact an itinerary. He goes on to say there are a “myriad of issues” involved including how far the winds go out from the storm that could affect ports not directly impacted by the storm. “We try to minimize the itinerary changes, but safety always comes first,” he said.
The good news for travelers on cruises affected by hurricanes is that unlike a hotel, a ship can move out of the way. Cruise lines work hard to keep guests onboard their ships entertained and safe like a normal cruise. Guests are kept updated on the storm situation and the captain tries to keep the vessel in good weather.
Currently, Hurricane Ike has redirected six Royal Caribbean ships to revise itineraries and substitute some ports of call. Carnival has eight vessels that are affected with revised port schedules with several having to skip Grand Turk due to extensive damage to the cruise center there. That port is expected to reopen in October.
Nevertheless, the big story for Carnival is its Galveston homeport near where Hurricane Ike is expected to make landfall. Despite the mandatory evacuation in Galveston, the Carnival Ecstasy sailed on schedule Thursday evening — albeit in a different direction than originally planned — to avoid Hurricane Ike. The new itinerary calls for the ship to visit Veracruz, Mexico on Saturday instead of Cozumel. Carnival says the Carnival Conquest is still expected to sail on Sunday from Galveston.
Not all the storm action is Caribbean-based. Tropical Storm Lowell is wreaking havoc with Mexican Riviera itineraries out of San Diego and Los Angeles. The Carnival Elation had to skip Cabo San Lucas and Royal Caribbean’s Vision of the Seas had to skip Mazatlan.
So, what happens to guests on current cruises that are affected by the storms? Whenever a cruise is canceled, passengers are entitled to a full refund. All cruise lines reserve the right to skip or change ports during a cruise — a normal occurrence in hurricane season. Cruise lines aren’t required to compensate passengers in those instances, but some do offer partial refunds, shipboard credits or discounts on a future cruise. Carnival allows customers to cancel without penalty if a ship’s departure port changes and passengers on Royal Caribbean who chose to cancel will be given a credit toward a future cruise, but not a refund.
For guests sailing who find their travel plans interrupted by a storm, both lines allow passengers to call family and if needed help with changing flight arrangements. However, sometimes a ship may not be able to return on schedule, which was the case last week for the Carnival Fantasy out of Mobile. Hurricane Gustav forced the ship to extend the voyage by two days. The ship returned too late for guests to catch their flights, so Carnival paid for hotels rooms along with changing airline reservations.
In the end, it’s all about doing the right thing. “We apologize to all of our guests who have had their vacations disrupted by itinerary changes as a result of hurricanes, but our focus throughout is the safety of our guests and crew,” says Carnival’s Gallagher.