Last week's cruise ship disaster off the coast of Italy raises serious issues about the conduct of the industry as whole, one expert says, warning that the potential for a "rogue captain" may be the tip of the iceberg.
Prof. Ross Klein, a cruise industry expert at Memorial University in St. John's, said the incident involving the Costa Concordia off the Italian island of Giglio could make things very difficult for the industry in the coming weeks.
"This presents a challenge for (the industry) because they almost have to re-earn people's trust," Klein said.
"We have a case here where it will be painted that we have a rogue captain who did things he wasn't supposed to," Klein said. "They'll try to blame him entirely — and that may be justified — but I think there's questions as to whether the ship presented its own set of issues . . . and whether the crew behaved the way they were supposed to. The fact things were so disorganized for evacuation is a real concern."
Late Friday, the Costa Concordia — described as essentially a floating city, boasting luxurious rooms, restaurants, theatres, casinos and many other amenities — ran aground off Giglio with more than 4,200 people on board. At least six people were killed with more than two dozen people still unaccounted for following the incident.
Divers and rescue crews continue to scour the wreckage in search of survivors before the vessel, which rests on its side, sinks further.
Klein said the tragedy, while terrible, could open the door to more discussion on how to improvements cruise ship safety.
"What this will do is, hopefully, focus more attention on the importance of training, refresher training . . . and whether ship design can be improved so that when there is something like running into a rock, that it isn't so catastrophic," he said. "There's a positive by getting people to think in those terms again because (the industry) gets complacent and self-congratulatory.
"One has an obligation . . . of duty of care. If you're going to take people's money and provide them a vacation choice, you have a responsibility to see they're taken care of."
One industry representative said Monday that stringent guidelines in coastal waters in Canada likely would prevent similar incidents here.
When cruise ships approach Canadian coastlines, Transport Canada rules dictate that a minimum of one pilot be placed on board the ship for the duration of the coastal trek, essentially stripping the captain of his typical authority for that period, says the president of the North West and Canada Cruise Association.
"It's a safety-first industry," said Greg Wirtz. "In Canada, Transport Canada regulates the operation of ships on the coastlines and requires compulsory pilotage on-board any time the vessel is within three miles of shore.
"There's no choice for the vessel operator for if they take on a pilot or not. For all foreign ships, they require a coastal pilot on board . . . with a minimum of one (independent pilot) on the bridge at any given time on coastal waters."
"It's in everybody's interest to ensure the complete safety of the passengers, crew and the vessel."
Klein, however, said the pilot requirement can only do so much to prevent accidents, noting that they are only on board for a very small portion of a cruise.
"You don't need a pilot for traversing from the exit of one port to the entrance of another port," he said, adding that it appears this was the case in Italy. "The purpose of a pilot is because they know the lay of the land in a specific area . . . but there's nothing to prevent a captain — whether it's in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia or British Columbia — from taking the ship and putting it some place that's unsafe."
Wirtz called the incident a "tragedy," but did not want to specifically comment on it because it is still under investigation.
The ship's captain, Francesco Schettino, is said to have veered off course prior to the vessel striking ground along the coast. He was arrested Saturday and accused of manslaughter and abandoning ship before all passengers and crew were safely evacuated.
Wirtz said cruise ships are extremely diligent in terms of communicating safety procedures and evacuation plans to passengers.
He said the drills and use of muster stations that record the presence of every passenger help ensure people are conducting themselves appropriately during any potential emergency.
Despite the international headlines the Costa Concordia disaster is making, Klein said the industry will bounce back.
"My guess is give it six weeks or two months and it will be business as usual," he said.