Fox News Reports on Man Booted Off Carnival Conquest

April 8, 2008
Fox News may not have realized it was reporting on an up-and-coming trend in cruising when it broadcast a story this weekend about a man who was kicked off Carnival Conquest. The piece, which originated from KRIV, Fox's Houston affiliate, addressed whether Stephen Sparks was fairly or unfairly debarked for behavior considered offensive to the ship's captain.

Here's the backstory: Not long into Carnival Conquest's March 16 cruise, a crew member became seriously ill and was med- evac'd by helicopter from the ship back to the U.S. for treatment. The delay caused by the emergency airlift prevented the ship from calling in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Carnival Conquest spent three days at sea before reaching Grand Cayman, which was supposed to be the second port of call. Passengers received a $25 onboard credit for the missed call.

However, for some travelers, this gesture was not good enough. Stephen Sparks was angry enough about the missed port and, in his mind, unsatisfactory compensation that he collected 560 signatures on a petition. He and his supporters approached the purser's desk with their complaint and apparently Sparks' behavior became aggressive. The captain decided the man was a risk to the safety of the ship and its passengers and put him and his three sons ashore in Grand Cayman. Carnival paid for the family's flight back to the U.S. Now Sparks is considering legal action.

The story that appeared on Fox and, later, on its Web site -- where it was the most viewed piece of the day for a while -- pointed viewers to Cruise Critic's own boards, where members were already engaged in discussion about the issue.

The real point though is that passenger-led mutinies are happening more and more often on cruises plagued by missed ports. For those of us following cruise news, this latest story is not unusual. Passengers on the QM2 pioneered this trend in January 2006. That ship missed three ports and arrived in Rio de Janeiro a day late. Guests unhappy with the proffered compensation threatened to stage a sit-in and not disembark in Brazil if they didn't get a better deal (Cunard did in fact up the compensation) .

And this past November, disgruntled passengers also threatened to stay put at the debarkation port of Beijing if they didn't receive increased compensation for missing several ports due to typhoons on a 16-night Asia voyage.

The difference between those cases and this one appears to be the level of inconvenience. In the previous cases, guests had paid thousands of dollars for once-in-a-lifetime trips to Asia and South America and had to miss several consecutive ports. In this recent story, only one port was missed and guests could enjoy fine weather on an extra day at sea.

Also, it's unclear why upset passengers didn't take advantage of Carnival's vacation guarantee. Carnival is the only line that allows cruise travelers unhappy with their vacation to debark at the first non-U.S. port of call and receive reimbursement for their economy air travel back to the originating homeport and the unused portion of their cruise fare. But despite all the anger onboard, no one chose to go for this option.

Was this anger and the mutiny justified? Longtime Cruise Critic readers have taken a hard stand, siding with the captain. They cite the fine print in the cruise contract stating ports may be missed, and the fact that many other lines would not give passengers any compensation at all. Posters also point out that the inconvenienced travelers were still on vacation and could take advantage of the food, activities, pools and sun decks offered onboard the ship. They support the captain for making the best of a bad situation and getting the ill crew member the best care possible.

Dissenters -- often first-time posters on Cruise Critic -- claim that $25 is not enough compensation for the major disappointment of missing an expected port. They also complain that the captain and ship's crew did not do a good enough job of communicating the situation as it was happening -- though it's rather unclear what they wanted to hear. They argue that perhaps the ship could have arrived in Jamaica late, rather than completely skipping the call.

You can follow the entire debate here.

We talked to a Carnival spokesman, who gave us further background on the situation. He told us that a helicopter evacuation is "quite an operation," as the helicopter can't land on Carnival Conquest (some ships do have helipads) and must instead pull the injured guest up in a basket. The extensive delay made the ship's original schedule impossible to meet. "Carnival wants to make people happy," he told us. "In these cases, we exhaust every way possible to come up with an alternative, such as reversing ports. Skipping a port of call is a last resort."

He also said a captain would never kick a passenger off the ship for starting a petition, which is what Sparks claims. Carnival encourages guests to go the purser's desk with a problem or grievance and get the matter settled before they leave the ship. But in this case, as reported in Carnival's official statement, the guest was "verbally abusive and belligerent to the vessel's staff," and the captain believed "he was disruptive to the safe operation of the vessel." It is a very rare case when a cruise line forces a guest to debark.

Carnival also followed its own stated policy by returning the $25 port charge for the missed stop in Jamaica. The line is not required to give guests additional compensation because its ticket contract states that the Master of the ship can omit or change any or all port calls for any reason, and the cruise line is not liable for any compensation. When a line does provide more generous compensation, such as when there's a mechanical issue, it's a gesture of goodwill on the cruise line's part and not a requirement. Carnival acted appropriately in this situation -- putting the safety of its crew member first and trying as hard as it could to salvage everyone else's vacation.

--by Erica Silverstein, Associate Editor