In the three years since the Costa Concordia tragedy, it can seem as though there has been a fundamental change in the relationship between the cruise industry and the press. Moving from the leisure pages to the news section, the sector has faced an onslaught of negative attention, with operational failures seized upon and operators often struggling to adequately counter negative press. A recent CLIA report is seeking to reclaim the narrative.

"Too often, sensationalised news coverage about the cruise industry, and agenda-driven opinion columns informed by professional industry critics, perpetuate misperceptions in many areas," says Christine Duffy, former CLIA president and CEO, now president of Carnival Cruise Lines.

"With all the scrutiny and news coverage of the cruise industry in the past few years, it amazes me that news organisations big and small continue to get the facts wrong. One recent editorial said that our industry "has operated in a legal grey zone", and claimed that "the result of this muddle has big impacts on passenger safety". The only muddle is in the editor’s apparent unwillingness to fact-check. A few minutes on Google by a journalism intern would have revealed the falsity of the editorial writer’s statements. Grey zone? Only in some reporter’s fuzzy journalism."

"The well-being of passengers and crew always comes first, and this study clearly shows that cruise lines’ continuous efforts to improve are succeeding."

Commissioned by CLIA, the UK-based maritime consultancy GP Wild sought to assess cruise data from across the world (not just CLIA members) and from a range of sources. Information was plugged from websites, official (US Coast Guard, UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch) and not (Cruise Law News). Media reports from broadsheets such as The New York Times and Daily Telegraph were scanned for information, as were maritime publications like Lloyd’s List. The accumulated data goes some way towards expunging any suggestion that a rising culture of operational failure is prevailing across the sector.

"Cruise ship safety and reliability have never been better," stated Duffy in the aftermath of the report. "CLIA and our member cruise lines never stop reviewing operational protocols and procedures to improve safety and technology. The well-being of passengers and crew always comes first, and this study clearly shows that cruise lines’ continuous efforts to improve are succeeding."

Growing volumes, greater safety

Between 2009 and 2013, operational incidents (OIs) – constituting everything from fires to technical breakdown, stranding to sinking – fell by 13%, despite capacity increasing by 18%. Minor OIs – involving a delay shorter than a day or see passengers or crew sustain minor injuries – dropped from 25 down to 19 a year. Significant OIs – those which cause a delay of 24 hours or more to the ship’s itinerary, involve a fatality or lead to a serious injury – reduced from 27 in 2010 to 21 in 2013.

"During this time of rapid growth in passenger volume, cruise ships not only maintained their exceptional safety record, but were also shown to be safer than most other forms of travel," stated Peter Wild, managing director of UK-based maritime consultancy GP Wild, after its publication. "The report shows that, even with the Concordia incident, the industry track record for safety over a five-year period is really excellent compared with any other transport industry," he continued. "It’s a lot safer than going on a US domestic train or a US domestic road. And it’s at least as good as the airline industry."

Cruise ship capacity has seen a 20% growth since 2009, but, despite a significant growth in passengers, the number of person-overboard incidents each year has nearly halved (23 down to 12), while fatalities have dropped from 19 to 13. More reassuring is the fact that those who do fall into the sea are more likely to be saved. "The thing that was unexpected, and good to see, is that the amount of people overboard who were rescued – a very difficult thing – grew about 20%. That’s commendable," claimed Wild.

It’s in these fatality figures that positive comparisons can be made with aviation. In the same period covered by the report, crew and passenger deaths on airlines were 2,787, compared with cruise ships’ 50. Measured against the total number of passengers a day, the figure stands at 0.029 per million passenger-days on cruise ships against the 0.197 experienced by air travel.

Clear skies ahead

In 2011 the fatality rates of passengers and crew per billion passenger miles was lower for the cruise industry (0.08) than any other form of transport, from any form of air travel to motor cyclists (who represented the highest at 231.40). Between 2009 and 2013, this figure was actually tied with that of world airlines.

"The report shows that even with the Concordia incident that the industry track record for safety over a five-year period is really excellent compared with any other transport industry. It’s a lot safer than going on a US domestic train or a US domestic road."

While the report indicates that the sector is moving in the right direction, there’s still room for improvement and cruise operators should be wary of complacency. The most common cause for minor and significant operational incidents was still technical; they might not necessarily be avoidable but operators can certainly find ways to safeguard against them in a way they perhaps can’t with rogue waves or storms (the second-lowest cause, after collisions).

There has been a drop in man-overboard figures, but incidents still occur and are enthusiastically seized upon by the media. Earlier this year, there was a particularly high-profile case of a 22-year-old man falling overboard Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, only to be picked up by the Disney Magic hours later. Though the cruise ship he fell from includes the minimum safety railing of 42in, Jim Walker, the maritime attorney behind Cruise Law News website, was quick to highlight the need for cruise ships to have better monitoring systems for detecting when someone falls off or jumps from a ship, such as motion sensors and thermal detection systems.

"We are not perfect, but the cruise industry continues to strive to create the safest possible environment for our passengers, to become even better stewards of the oceans that our ships call home, and to transparently share the facts with our passengers and other stakeholders," says Duffy. "Cruise lines consistently demonstrate respect for the laws, regulations and industry best practices that help ensure cruising remains one of the most rewarding and safest vacation experiences in the world."

The stats don’t lie, and while there is still potential for cruise operators to improve, the report comes as a welcome opportunity for the industry to highlight its safety record backed by solid numbers. With the sector set to continue its growth, operators will need to ensure they continue working towards getting these number even lower. Any sign of a rise, or even stagnation, and they can be sure that certain factions within media will leap at the opportunity to chastise.