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Carnival Triumph Passengers Have Fewer Rights Than Air Travelers

The crippled cruise liner Carnival Triumph limps into port guided by tug boats February 14, 2013 in Mobile, Alabama.
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The crippled cruise liner Carnival Triumph limps into port guided by tug boats February 14, 2013 in Mobile, Alabama.

Passengers aboard the stricken Carnival Triumph cruise ship do not have the same compensation rights afforded air travelers when similar emergencies strike.

The reason is that the cruising industry is not as strictly regulated as the airline industry, which is overseen by the US Department of Transportation. The cruising industry is under the Federal Maritime Commission, which mainly deals with safety and not consumer issues.

Moreover, leading industry operators like Carnival Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean incorporate their vessels in foreign countries like Liberia, Honduras, Panama, or the Bahamas, which allows them to avoid paying US federal taxes and following a long slate of regulations governing health, safety, and labor practices.

The result is that the industry largely regulates itself, critics say, which is not always favorable to the consumer. Fires, power outages, and vessels going adrift, are hazards passengers can face without reprisal.

(Read More: Carnival Cruise Ship Adrift Off Mexican Coast After Fire)

"Each of these issues requires urgent attention from both the industry and regulators," Ross Klein, a researcher at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John's, wrote in the Seattle Times last April. "Because most accidents are avoidable – related either to human error or to allowing ships out of port with unresolved mechanical issues – there is a need for much greater oversight of the industry and stricter enforcement of safety standards."

Mr. Klein's research suggests that there have been 100 incidents worldwide in which ships have gone adrift or lost power since 2000. Since 1990, 79 have had onboard fires and 73 had had collisions.

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The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), which represents 26 cruise lines, says on its website that its members "are subject to a very comprehensive body of laws, regulations and policies established at the national and international levels."

The International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency, mandates global standards. But those standards have more to do with safety inspections, such as insuring the height of passenger railings or number of life vests.

Past cruising incidents have prompted new CLIA safety rules. Last year saw a fire on the luxury cruise ship Azamara Quest outside Malaysia; the grounding of the Costa Concordia near Tuscany, which killed at least 25 people, with seven others missing and presumed dead; and a power outage on the Allegra in the Indian Ocean, which left 1,000 people stranded without power or water for about a week.

In response, the CLIA approved 10 new policies, such as ensuring the number of life jackets carried exceeds the number of people onboard and providing emergency instructions that must be communicated to all passengers, such as when and how to wear a life jacket and where they are located.

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"Cruising is one of the safest forms of leisure transportation, thanks to our industry-wide commitment to safety, strict regulations and vigorous enforcement mechanisms. Yet the rarity of cruise accidents does not mitigate the pain and loss we feel if they do occur," the report about the policy changes reads.

But critics say the vessels get lax oversight overseas – and even when they arrive at US ports and go through US Coast Guard inspections.

(Read More: Conditions on Disabled Cruise Ship in Dispute)

"There is not one universal overlord" that regulates the vessels, says Robert Jarvis, a professor of maritime law at Nova Southeastern University Law Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "So there is a race to the bottom for cruise lines looking for which country is the most lax and the most inexpensive. And there are countries that say to ship owners, 'If you come here and pay an annual fee, we will leave you alone.' "

Professor Jarvis says that it is largely up to the consumer to read the contract printed on their ticket. Typical practice in the industry is to issue full or partial refunds or to provide credit toward a future cruse. Carnival Cruise Lines has offered the 3,143 passengers aboard the Carnival Triumph $500 for their hardship, plus a refund of their ticket. Hauled by tugboats, the vessel is scheduled to arrive in Mobile, Ala. late Thursday.

Carnival says an engine room fire caused the power outage. The US National Transportation Safety Board is launching an investigation. The ship was incorporated in the Bahamas, which means the primary agency tasked to investigate is the Bahamas Maritime Authority.

Jarvis says that consumer lawsuits launched against cruise operators tend to go nowhere because it is often difficult to prove that the operator knew the vessel was not seaworthy. Also, courts can be reluctant to grant class action status to some lawsuits because passengers often have different experiences when disaster strikes.

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