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Cruise industry wounded by problems with Carnival ships

| Sunday, March 17, 2013, 6:03 p.m.

A string of incidents on Carnival ships in recent weeks has the cruise industry fighting for its reputation — again.

A year after the Costa Concordia disaster, “the (Carnival) brand is in a terrible place ... and (cruising) has now become perceived by many people as one of the most stressful vacation choices,” says Christopher Muller, a professor and former dean of Boston University's School of Hospitality Administration.

Muller says widely reported problems with four Carnival ships in the past five weeks have left the line and the industry at a critical moment.

“It becomes a wounding by a thousand cuts.”

In the last week alone, two of Carnival's 24 ships have experienced technical problems that have affected the on-board experience.

The 2,124-passenger Carnival Legend limped back into its home port of Tampa on Sunday at a reduced speed after the malfunction of one of its two propulsion units. It had to skip a call in Grand Cayman on Thursday.

A day earlier, the 3,646-passenger Carnival Dream experienced a malfunction of a backup generator while docked in St. Maarten. With repairs necessary, Carnival ended the cruise early and flew passengers home.

A month ago, an engine room fire left the 2,758-passenger Carnival Triumph dead in the water in the Gulf of Mexico. Passengers reported miserable conditions on the vessel as it was towed to Mobile, Ala.

A fourth Carnival ship, the 2,052-passenger Carnival Elation, also has experienced a problem with a propulsion unit in recent days, though its operation has not been affected.

The incidents have again put executives at Carnival Corp., parent company of both Carnival Cruise Lines and Costa Cruises, in the position of having to defend the company's safety practices.

“I want to emphatically state that all the ships in our fleet are safe,” Carnival Corp. Vice Chairman Howard Frank told Wall Street analysts during a conference call to discuss first-quarter earnings.

Still, because of the Triumph incident, Carnival triggered a fleetwide review of its fire safety programs and engine room redundancies, and Frank said it is likely to lead to millions of dollars in upgrades to vessels.

“We will make the changes necessary to provide even greater redundancies to our shipboard systems and, in the event of a loss of power, to increase the emergency generator power to provide a more effective level of comfort,” Frank said.

That said, Frank told analysts that a Carnival study of ship incidents in the past decade had found no disparity between its brands and those of other cruise companies.

The cruise industry maintains that it has an excellent long-term safety record, with Carnival alone carrying 4.5 million passengers on thousands of cruises without incident.

A recent Harris poll suggests that America's trust in cruise lines dropped significantly after the Carnival Triumph fire.

The survey of 2,230 U.S. adults, taken Feb. 19-21, found a 17 percentage-point drop in a measurement of America's trust in Carnival Cruise Lines and somewhat smaller declines in trust for other lines, including Royal Caribbean and Holland America.

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