NCL Limits New F3 Series to Two

September 14, 2007
News came this week from France's St. Nazaire -- home of Aker Yards France and a major location for new cruise ship building -- that Norwegian Cruise Line, which already has a firm order for two versions of an entirely new series of mega-ship, will not pick up an option for a third. What makes this puzzling is in the timing of the announcement. That's because just last month NCL announced a major new partnership with Apollo Management, LP -- which owns Oceania. Apollo has invested $1 billion in the company that would, in part, be used to actually fuel further expansion.

Indeed, according to the official NCL/Apollo press release, "the new investment, in the form of common stock alongside NCL's existing sole shareholder, Star Cruises ("Star"), is designed to strengthen NCL's balance sheet and its ability to continue to expand what is fast-becoming the youngest fleet in the industry, and to evolve further the company's successful Freestyle Cruising concept first introduced in 2000."

The series of twins, dubbed F3, has already sparked much interest. The ships, measuring 150,000 tons and carrying 4,200 passengers, are the biggest ever commissioned by NCL. While few details have yet been announced, one major new feature has been revealed: All staterooms will have balconies. That's a first-ever for the industry, at least in terms of big-ship cruise lines. As well, the new ship design will, according to NCL, "offer 60 percent more passenger space than the largest ships built so far by NCL, and will use that space to introduce a major leap forward in the flexibility and variety of the cruise experience ...."

Cruise lines commonly get the option to order extra vessels in a series when they sign shipyard contracts (they make a firm contract to purchase two, for instance, and then "reserve" shipyard space, with the option, if they decide to build another). Just as commonly, they tend to exercise the options and, in fact, in a quick survey of Cruise Critic contributors, none can remember the last time a cruise line didn't pick up an existing option.

Editor's Note: One exception has been Royal Caribbean, which in 2003 opted not to build a fifth -- and sixth -- Radiance-class vessel for which it had options. Cruise Critic contributor Doug Newman points out that instead the line decided to move from the Panamax-sized Radiance class to what it then called "ultra Voyager" (and which we now know as Freedom of the Seas).

That's why tongues are wagging about this week's news. Travelers and industry types alike are trying to read the tea leaves to see what, if anything, the dropped option will mean to NCL's future. NCL itself is mum on its rationale (which does nothing to quell speculation); we received no response to several requests for comment by NCL executives.

But Here's The Thing

Beyond that, though, the news also resurrects an interesting industry-wide debate: Though NCL's stopped its biggest-ever series at two, are ships getting too big?

Indeed, NCL's F3 ships, which debut in 2009 and 2010 (the third, if the option had been picked up, would have launched in 2011), will occupy a rarefied strata: only Royal Caribbean's Freedom-class (154,000 tons, 3,634 passengers) and Cunard's Queen Mary 2 (151,000 tons, 2,620 passengers) are larger.

Royal Caribbean, which plans to build a new biggest-ever series of ships, called Genesis class, appears to be betting on the ever-growing trend. Its first, the 220,000-ton, 5,400-passenger vessel that's as yet unnamed, will debut in 2009; an option to build a second was firmed up this spring.

Cruise lines that are building significantly larger new-builds include Disney (going from the 83,000-ton, 2,400 passenger Disney Magic and Disney Wonder to a pair of 122,000-ton ships); Celebrity (going from the 91,000-ton, 1,950 passenger Millennium to the 118,000-ton, 2,850 passenger Solstice); and P&O (from the 83,000-ton, 1,952-passenger Arcadia to the 116,000-ton, 3,076-passenger Ventura).

Conversely, some lines are building smaller (or at least keeping stable). Cunard is one (from the aforementioned Queen Mary 2 to the 90,000-ton, 2,000-passenger Queen Victoria); and Holland America (the 86,000-ton, 2,044-passenger Eurodam is ever so slightly larger than the 85,000-ton, 1,848-passenger Westerdam).

Costa is straddling the middle. It's still building biggest-ever Concordia-sized vessels (such as the 112,000-ton, 3,780-passenger Costa Pacific), but it's also investing in Panamax-sized ships (the 92,700-ton, 2,260-passenger Costa Luminosa).

What do you think? Is bigger still better? Chime in here.

--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor
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