Q&A: Carnival Discusses Latest Cruise Ship Mechanical Problems

March 14, 2013

(7:15 p.m. EDT) -- A problem with Carnival Dream's emergency backup generator has forced Carnival to cancel the remainder of its Caribbean itinerary; passengers onboard Carnival Dream are getting an extra day in St. Maarten and will be flown directly to Orlando or their home city tomorrow. The problem with the backup system, which is designed in part to protect select hotel services in the event of a main power failure, actually caused some hotel services to cease functioning temporarily, Cruise Critic learned during an exclusive one-on-one with Ruben Rodriguez, Carnival's executive vice president of ship operations.

Rodriguez explained some of the mechanics of the technical problem, why the ship cannot sail with passengers and why problems aren't always such a bad thing.

Q: Walk me through what happened on Carnival Dream. How did a problem with an emergency backup generator affect systems normally powered by the main generator?

Ruben Rodriguez: It's part of our regular maintenance process to test the backup generator while Carnival Dream is in St. Maarten, the last port in its itinerary. During the regular test a breaker tripped, which identified a technical malfunction. On newer ships, like Carnival Dream, though it is not a requirement, it is not uncommon for some hotel services, like elevators and toilets, to be connected to [both the main generator and] the emergency switchboard. And the reason is that if you have a failure in your main power plant, you can continue to provide some of those services. So when the ship had a malfunction in the electrical system of the backup generator, it tripped some of those services. But that's why we could get it [elevators and toilets] back up [by connecting only through main systems]. Later, when they were trying to repair the emergency backup generator, it took those systems down again. At no time did it interrupt the main power or propulsion.

Q: How come you can't just reset the breaker the way you would do in a house?

Rodriguez: Typically when breakers trip they are indicators of something else going on, which triggers a much more exhaustive process to figure out what is doing the tripping. After multiple attempts, we were able to figure out the root cause.

Q: So was the root cause fixed?

Rodriguez: We concluded we are unable to repair the emergency backup generator. And in an abundance of caution, with all those guests onboard in conditions where we do not have an emergency generator, we will fly them home.

Q: Why did Carnival need to cancel the next sailing? How long will repairs take?

Rodriguez: We have permission from our Flag Country (Panama), our Classification Society (Lloyds Register) and the Coast Guard to sail the ship back and we will sail back with our crew. Our repair requires another generator, wiring and cranes that are not available in St. Maarten, so we will do the repair in Port Canaveral. That will begin when the ship arrives. And we want to repair it and get backup generation back online before we do another cruise. We're working through those plans now. We're hopeful that this will be done by sometime next week. It should be a pretty rapid repair. I'm optimistic.

Q: How did you let passengers know what was happening?

Rodriguez: Guests were in St. Maarten yesterday, what was supposed to be their last port day, and they returned to the ship last night at which time we alerted them to problems. At that time we believed we would be sailing that night. We concluded in the middle of the night, around 1 a.m., that we could not get the emergency generator back on line and that we would be flying them home. We chose not to wake them up with that announcement. When they woke up, we let them know and encouraged them to go ashore and provided complimentary water taxi service. At no point were guests held hostage on the ship.

Q: What services are being provided to passengers on the ship?

Rodriguez: All of the activities and features of Carnival Dream are operational. Lots of activities were already planned since today was supposed to be a "Fun Day at Sea." Those are all happening. Plus, we are planning a special dinner and concert tonight, including a special performance by three-time Grammy winner Jon Secada. One of my team members is on his way there to host some of these activities. We're trying to make sure they have a great time before flying them home. Additionally, we are offering free Internet access and phone calls so they can alert their loved ones about any changes in travel plans and to let them know they are safe. We are also refunding the last three days of their cruise and giving them a discount on a future cruise, and we are paying for all their travel back home.

Q: What about plans to get them home?

Rodriguez: We're working through all of that now. For a number of guests who are not originally from central Florida, we're flying them directly back to their home cities. Other guests we're flying to Orlando and taking them to port to get their cars. Charter flights start tomorrow morning at 8:30 a.m. and continue throughout the day and into Saturday. In these situations, as much as we'd love to get everybody out in one day, because we're talking about thousands of people and the constraints of the airports in St. Maarten and Orlando, it has to continue throughout the day. We don't know yet how quickly we'll be able to conclude it.

Q: When will Carnival Dream sail back to Port Canaveral?

Rodriguez: That will be driven by when we get all the guests off the ship and on their way home. We'll probably leave soon after all our guests are off the ship.

Q: Is there a fundamental problem with ship maintenance across the Carnival Cruise Lines fleet? Two major engine problems in two months is a lot.

Rodriguez: No. Our main goal is to provide fun, memorable vacations, and you can't do that if they're not safe. Safety is our first priority. Yes, there were two incidents in one month, but they're completely unrelated incidents. There is no indication that there are any specific or root causes of these incidents. After Carnival Splendor, we reviewed our maintenance processes, learned some lessons and addressed them. All forms of transportation are actually pretty safe, whether its cars, ships or planes. But accidents do happen, and we need to learn from those accidents and do our best to prevent them from happening again and mitigate the consequences when they do happen. After Carnival Splendor, we did have quite a few lessons and we made decisions to make changes and we invested $10 million in changes. And a lot of those changes worked on the Triumph. The Coast Guard actually praised the crew on the Triumph for extinguishing the fire so quickly and that was a product of the lessons learned from the Splendor.

Q: So this incident and Carnival Triumph are opportunities to learn something?

Rodriguez: We are doing an extensive review of the fleet with three objectives to prevent things like this from happening again. The first objective, especially from the Triumph, is there are lots of things we can do on fire safety and detecting and extinguishing fires quickly so it doesn't cause any injuries. Second, you want to make sure that you have power plant redundancy, so that if you have a fire or some type of incident, it doesn't put out propulsion or hotel services. Our review is very focused on that. The third layer of protection we're reviewing is if the first two pieces fail, you want to have backup power generations. Not only that supplies the major systems, but also critical hotels components like galleys, toilets, elevators. So we're looking for opportunities to invest here, and CLIA has aligned with us as well to do this across the entire industry. You will see us sharing this review and these learnings in the next couple of weeks.

Q: Does Carnival have an image problem? How can Carnival change the perception that it is skimping on maintenance and safety?

Jim Berra, chief marketing officer: You'd have to be under a rock to not have seen the coverage of the Triumph and now even of the Dream. But as we do our review and learn, we think it's important that we publicize and communicate those efforts effectively. We don't want people to think we're sitting on our hands waiting for the Coast Guard Report. We're not. We're taking action right away, as soon as we find solutions, and we want to make sure that people understand that.

Q: When a substantial mechanical issue occurs, what is the protocol for alerting the authorities, passengers and the media?

Rodriguez: We have protocols for both internal and external communication. It starts with Flag (Panama) and Class. When the ship is alongside port, the Coast Guard is not involved, but we always communicate with the Coast Guard, since we are a major U.S. carrier. In this case, since Carnival Dream is in St. Maarten, it was not obvious who in the Coast Guard to go to because there is no Coast Guard in St. Maarten. But by the time the Coast Guard reached out because a passenger had contacted them, we were already in contact with the Coast Guard about our contingency plans.

Our protocol for communicating with guests is to be very proactive and very upfront and honest. We made announcements yesterday about a delayed departure because at that point we really thought we would leave. It wasn't until the middle of the night that we concluded we would not be able to leave. We chose not to wake the guests up and announce our plans because they were sleeping and we didn't want to wake them up when there was nothing to be done about it.

As for the press, we put out a statement this morning about 8:45 a.m. We wanted to make sure that we understood the situation and how we were going to handle everything first. And we didn't want to tell the media until we had told our guests. We put out another statement at 10:45 a.m., and then through social media and other outlets, we communicated the facts and answered questions as they arrived.

Q: What complications are caused by cruisers without passports when situations like this occur?

Rodriguez: We've already addressed this issue with the relevant authorities in St. Maarten and the United States. We have a good relationship with Customs and Border Patrol, and they've already assured us there will not be any issues with guests traveling without passports. It has been our experience that we've never had problems when guests for whatever reason have not had passports. It is not a major concern for us.

Q: Would you consider changing the rules so that cruisers have to have passports?

Rodriguez: We want to accommodate guests with and without passports.

Q: When a problem occurs that's substantial enough to, in your mind, warrant compensation, what's the decision-making process? What factors did you use to determine compensation for both passengers on the shortened cruise and passengers on Saturday's canceled cruise?

Rodriguez: We do have some guidelines we follow internally but basically we have two objectives. The first is that we want to make them whole. For someone on the next cruise, they have paid for a cruise already and in some cases they have committed to travel plans that cost money. So the first step is to make them whole. Additionally, we want to give them an opportunity to have a great value on another Carnival cruise.

Q: What happens to the crew -- wages, etc. -- when a cruise is cut short or canceled due to maintenance issues?

Rodriguez: The philosophy is the same. We care about our crew very much. If we don't charge the guests gratuities, we then cover that for the crew. And in this case, the crew will remain onboard. In the case of Triumph, the crew were also taken care of. After Triumph, they needed a break so we put them up in hotels with food for a few days. The ones that were near the end of their contract, we flew them home. Others that had recently started a contract were transferred to other ships.

Q: Where is Carnival in terms of the fleetwide review effort that president and CEO Gerry Cahill talked about on Tuesday, and which you referenced above?

Rodriguez: We've made a lot of progress. This is a big part of my job and my team's job. The review started immediately after the Triumph incident, even while the ship was sailing back to Mobile. What we're doing with Carnival Triumph will be the first example of how this review works and how we'll apply changes. In the coming weeks, we'll talk about the lessons we've learned from that review, what can be repaired, what we can do and our plans for the rest of the fleet. We don't have to wait for the Coast Guard to write its report to do this.

--by Dori Saltzman, News Editor