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A 'bill of rights' for cruise passengers

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By Christopher Elliott
Maybe it was the string of customer-service disasters, starting with the Costa Concordia tragedy last year and leading up to the recent Carnival Triumph "poop" cruise.
Maybe it was the threat of government regulation from Sen. Charles Schumer (D.-N.Y.), a vocal critic of the cruise industry, that made it move.
But here's what we have: a passenger "bill of rights" by the Cruise Lines International Association to add to its ticket contracts, the legal agreement between passengers and the cruise line.
These include the right to leave a docked ship if it can't provide essentials such as food, water, bathroom facilities and medical care; the right to a full refund for a trip canceled because of mechanical failures, or a partial refund if a trip is cut short for the same reason; and the right to timely updates about any changes in a ship's itinerary caused by a mechanical failure or an emergency.
None of these rights are new. Instead, they codify "many longstanding practices of CLIA," according to Christine Duffy, the organization's chief executive.
"The cruise industry is committed to continuing to deliver against the high standards we set for ourselves in all areas of shipboard operations," she said.
But would the bill have affected the outcome of any recent customer-service meltdowns?
Stewart Chiron, a Miami travel agent who's known for his pro-industry views, said that the answer is "no."
Rather, he thinks that the reason for the bill is political. Late last year, the cruise organization merged with several cruise trade groups, and is just taking the new organization on a "test drive" with this bill.
Although CLIA representatives claim that they collaborated closely with Schumer on the bill, the senator appeared to be caught off guard by the sudden announcement.
In a letter to CLIA, Schumer pressed the association for specifics on its new pledge. Who determines that essential provisions such as food and water can't be provided? What exactly are the cruise lines' current reimbursement practices? How will passengers be notified of changes to their itinerary?
Schumer has called the bill "a step in the right direction" but has stopped short of endorsing it. "I still have many remaining questions, both on the content and how the bill of rights will be enforced," he told the Associated Press.
A CLIA representative said that the organization will answer him "soon."
Passengers are skeptical, too. Some say that they'd prefer deeds to words when it comes to passenger protections. To others, the existing passenger contract is something of a joke, and adding passenger rights language is little more than a punch line.
Bruce Helenbart, an engineer from Hazelwood, Mo., says that he recently had to wade through a 20-page cruise ticket contract and sign it before setting sail.
What's more, the agreement was what's known as an "adhesion" contract -- a one-way agreement that bound him. If he didn't sign it, he couldn't board.
James Walker, a maritime attorney based in Miami, says that customers are correct to disbelieve the cruise industry's new customer-service rhetoric. "What this bill of rights does, in fact, is limit the liability of cruise lines.
"They are proposing rights that are beneficial to the cruise lines, but not to their customers,"Walker said.
2013 Christopher Elliott/ Tribune Media Services, Inc.
Story tags » Cruising

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