Examining the Safety, Operations and Oversight of the Cruise Ship Industry

By Earl F. Weener

Panelists and Board Members at the Cruise Ship forumEarlier this week, the Board held a 2-day, public forum entitled Cruise Ships: Examining Safety, Operations, and Oversight. The forum provided an opportunity to learn more about cruise ship operations, and explore the various safety issues involved in operating a cruise vessel. With more than 20 million people expected to take a cruise in 2014, we believed it important to focus attention on cruise ship operations and understand what measures the cruise line industry uses to ensure cruises proceed underway with appropriately trained crew, well equipped and maintained vessels, and adequate measures to address emergency situations.

The forum was the NTSB’s first public event on the safety of cruise ships, and we were fortunate to hear from the International Maritime Organization; the U.S. Coast Guard; various vessel owners, operators, and class societies; and other industry groups, including both domestic and international interests. While the topics covered the various safety regulatory schemes applicable to the industry, we also learned more specifically about efforts the industry has undertaken to improve safety in the wake of several recent high-profile accidents.

As I listened to the presenters and engaged them in discussion, I was particularly pleased to hear of the increasing practice of adapting proven safety tools from the aviation industry to the marine industry – notably, bridge resource management (or BRM), electronic data monitoring and analysis (bridge operations quality assurance or BOQA), and pro-active internal audits to maintain standards (marine organization safety audit or MOSA). Like the aviation industry, the international marine community has come to value a safety management systems (SMS) approach to developing and maintaining a robust safety culture. It only follows, then, mariners should also come to value these safety tools, as they provide a means to achieving and maintaining a successful SMS. Programs such as BOQA and MONA provide the underlying data critical to threat and hazard identification, whereas BRM is a proven mitigation strategy to address human error. It is gratifying to see cruise lines plot this course and as a result, I believe they, like the aviation industry, will also see dramatic safety gains.

In considering the 100th anniversary of the Titanic tragedy in 2012, the cruise ship industry has vastly improved the safety of cruise ship operations, and I encourage them to remain on course with responsive actions to address shortcomings in the wake of recent accidents. However, I also find it interesting, and I believe it is due to the global nature of these two industries, how both the aviation and marine industries have come to similar conclusions in identifying SMS as the best approach to improving safety within their respective modes of transportation. It is said copying is the highest form of flattery. In light of the recent rail and pipeline accidents under investigation by the Board, going out on a limb, I doubt the aviation and marine industries would be offended in the least if the rail and pipeline industries engaged in some flattery. It should not take the nature of a global environment to convince an industry to do the right thing.


Earl F. Weener, Ph.D., took the oath of office as a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board on June 30, 2010.

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