The sinking of a 21st century hi-tech cruise ship in calm waters, on an established route in well-known waters off the coast of Tuscany has set alarm bells ringing for many reasons.
Travel experts are astonished since the less than six-year old £350m Costa Concordia was equipped with all the latest navigation technology which should have alerted the crew to the rocks that tore a hole in its side.
The Costa Concordia belongs to the Carnival Corporation, which is the world’s largest cruise company. Based in Miami, it owns legendary names including the Costa, P&O, Cunard, Holland American Line, Ibero and Seabourn brands.
With 3,200 passengers and around 1,000 crew on board, the Costa Concordia could strike you as a monstrously large ship. But cruise ships have become even larger as the corporations that own them seek economies of scale. Some, like the Allure of the Seas owned by Royal Caribbean International, can hold 6,360 passengers and over 1,000 crew.
Whilst some of us may view a maritime cruise as a luxury only for a small minority of the rich and idle, the industry sees passengers as cash cows to be relieved of their savings. The stats for Carnival’s latest ships, still in construction, sum it all up: the 130,000 tonne juggernauts are part of its Dream class group and feature amusements like a water park, a 2-deck miniature golf course and a whirlpool jacuzzi in four places along the outside edge of the deck.
There has been a massive growth in the industry over the last decade with around 1.7 million British people enjoying cruise holidays last year. So much so that some industry experts seem far more concerned about the impact the disaster could have on profits. “It’s a bad moment for the industry,” says Sara Macefield in The Sunday Telegraph. (But not too bad for the British market since there were only 24 Britons on this sailing, she adds, in nationalist tones.)
It has taken eye-witness accounts by passengers to reveal the truth behind all the glitz and prevarications of the cruise industry. When the Costa Concordia hit the rocks, passengers were simply told there was a technical problem, thereby losing precious time.
Minutes later, the ship listed so badly that they could not access some of the lifeboats. Many have spoken about the lack of evacuation drills or muster training to prepare for emergencies, not only on the Costa Concordia but on other Carnival-owned ships. They also spoke about the lack of leadership from the ship’s senior crew.
The maritime industry is institutionally ridden with disdain for most of its passengers and those who labour on and below decks. While officers are well trained and well-paid, lower-ranking crew are not. Andrew Linington, head of communications for Nautilus International, a trade union for ships’ officers, says that most of crew members on these big vessels receive only four to five days initial safety training, “a fraction of the safety training given to airline cabin crew.” On-board safety equipment has hardly changed since the Titanic disaster, Linington says.
The sinking of the Costa Concordia, like that of the Titanic 100 years ago, is symbolic of the state of the system itself. Capable of brilliant advances in technology, including navigation systems and shipbuilding, it is fatally compromised by its bottom-line motivation: shareholder profits. And, equally important, the best systems in the world are only as good as those who operate them.
Industry experts have written off Costa Concordia as “constructive total loss”. The same should be said of the capitalist system as a whole where profits come a long way before the interests of ordinary people, on cruise ships or not.
A World to Win secretary