Machines fail. Big machines, with lots of moving parts, fail. But when a cruise ship fails, as the Norwegian Dawn did on a Friday morning on the cusp of the Caribbean, the organization responsible for the machine and to the passengers aboard should not fail. Norwegian Cruise Lines failed big-time. Oh, the ship didn't sink. There was plenty of food. They didn't run out of alcohol. The never-ending huckstering didn't let up. And we eventually got back to Miami. Where NCL failed was in communications.
Friday morning, enroute from St. Kitts to Miami, everything stopped. For an hour or two after the electrical system stopped, the people in charge of the ship seemed to have their act together. The captain was on the PA system every 15 minutes or so with brief updates. Not much in they way of information, and nothing passengers didn't know (it was hard to miss the fact that the ship was dead in the water and the lights were out), but it was reassuring to know that the captain was keeping us informed. Hours after we lost power, we watched one smokestack after another came to life. The ship attempted to resume its run to Miami. Then the systems failed again. The captain announced that we were going to San Juan. After that - silence. An enormous information vacuum. Passengers were left to learn what they could without help from NCL or the ship management. We shared information and rumors. We made repeated trips to Deck 7 in the vain hope that we might learn what was happening. Deck 7 midship is where people book excursions, pay bills and get information. Call it Norwegian Dawn Central. After the captain announced that we were going to Puerto Rico, lines quickly formed as people sought information so they could make plans and notify family. Norwegian Dawn Central would become the one point on the ship every passenger visited, sometimes hourly. The problem was that nobody knew anything. No, that's wrong. People at corporate HQ probably knew what was happening. The ship's command may have known. But no one else did. Certainly the poor crew members behind the information desk had no information. All they cold do was hand out a business card with the number for NCL corporate headquarters in Miami.
At some point late Friday afternoon, an officer appeared in Norwegian Dawn Central and announced to the hundred or so people who happened to be there that NCL was arranging charter flights to Miami. Half a dozen crew members at the information desk, suddenly no longer the center of attention and irritation, stood in a group and listened. One said, "Why didn't they tell us that?" They was a frustrated as the passengers. (The crew shared our misery and continued to be as attentive, positive and responsive as they had been since the cruise began. From the day we sailed, the Dawn's crew were friendly and energetic and provided superior service. Only near the end did they seem to lose interest, probably because they were not receiving direction from supervisors. While empty glasses, beer bottles and trash accumulated in the pool area, crew members were hunkered down on the promenade deck, using their laptops.)
Friday night, needless to say, was tedious. People found a breath of air where they could, sleeping on balconies, sleeping with stateroom doors open, sleeping on deck. Air conditioning has made wimps of us.
Saturday morning. Up bright and early. With flights back to Florida in the offing, we were packed and ready to go ... nowhere. Through word of mouth at breakfast, we learned that some passengers had found notices outside their stateroom door that they had flights (that system proved to be hit or miss as flights were added and some passengers were never notified that they had been scheduled for a flight.) Passengers learned from each other that three flights had been scheduled. Many hours would go by before word of additional flights was passed from passenger to passenger. In Norwegian Dawn Central, a single copy of each flight manifest was posted. Scores of people jostled and pushed to looked for their names. The only reason it wasn't hundreds of people searching for their names was that the bridge never announced that the manifests were available. As flights were added, one or two of copies of those lists were left on counters for people to peruse. Sometime Saturday afternoon, the cruise director came on the PA system to inform us that everyone would have a flight assigned by dinner time. In the meantime, stay away from Norwegian Dawn Central, he said. Folks there didn't have any information. (And besides, he might have added, our priority is that passengers settle their accounts before they leave the ship and frustrated passengers were interfering with that process.) As it turned out, near day's end a handful of hotel staff showed up at one of the information desks to help passengers find out when they would fly out of San Juan. Most of Saturday passed with no useful information coming from the bridge. What would I have liked to have known? And when? The when part is easy - immediately and constantly. What? For starters, I would have liked to have been told the plan at the same time that management was trying to spin the story with the news media by showing NCL as caring, safety-conscious, fair-minded, generous and concerned about their passengers. The cruise line sent out a self-serving news release on Friday afternoon. Passengers didn't receive the same information until the next morning. I would have liked to know that they were working to arrange charter flights. Here's a sample announcement that could have come from the bridge on Friday: "NCL headquarters in Miami has an emergency plan in place. The staff there is working with pre-identified charter carriers to arrange flights from San Juan to Miami. As you can imagine, this may take some time, especially since it's Thanksgiving weekend. However, we will be on the job non-stop until every passenger has a flight." I would have liked to know that flights had been arranged and the rationale for selecting which passengers flew first. Try this: "Ladies and gentlemen. So far, we have been successful in arranging three charter flights for Saturday. We estimate that 600 passengers will be able to travel on those three flights. We have given priority to passengers who are members of our Latitudes program and travelers who must make international connections." It didn't matter whether we were on the first flight or the last. Frequent travelers have dibs on certain benefits. Families with small children should have priority. Just tell us what's happening. Amazingly, as NCL or the Dawn scheduled passengers to fly back to Miami, they broke up families and couples - people sharing the same cabin. They assigned a man to one flight while his wife and infant son were assigned to another. Possibly more amazing, they didn't tell passengers who were booked to continue the cruise from Miami to the Western Caribbean that second leg of the cruise had been cancelled. I broke the news to the English couple on our evacuation flight. They thought they were headed to the Miami cruise terminal for five more days of sailing. Or this: "Ladies and gentlemen, we are now posting the flight lists on Channel 2 on you cabin televisions. The lists will scroll continuously and we will notify you over the public address system when a new list is available." What an amazing idea! Use technology to inform passengers instead of the endless blather about shopping and cruise line destinations. It didn't happen. In fact, they could have planted the chatty cruise director in front of a microphone and had him read the names. That didn't happen either. Emergencies happen. Well-run organizations have emergency plans in place. Give NCL the benefit of the doubt and assume they have a playbook for emergencies at sea. But every good emergency plan has a communications component. In an emergency, people need information. They need to be able to plan. They need reassurance. They are entitled to know what is being done on their behalf. NCL and the people in charge of the Norwegian Dawn failed their passengers miserably. They seemed to think that as long as the booze flowed (full price, of course), food was shoveled onto plates and the Caribbean band played, we would behave like docile, obedient children. The attitude, actions - and inaction - of the cruise line and the ship's command were unprofessional and insulting.