After more than three months of around-the-clock technical repairs, the 3,006-passenger Carnival Splendor is back in Long Beach, Calif., sailing roundtrip Mexican Riviera cruises to Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas. The 113,300-ton ship was damaged in a major fire that began in the ship’s aft engine room on Nov. 8, 2010.
The ship now has one new 218,000-pound diesel generator, two 106,000-pound alternators and 110 miles of new electrical cable.
"We’re thrilled to have the ship back in service," said Gerry Cahill, Carnival Cruise Lines’ president and CEO, at a press conference onboard the ship earlier this week.
Cahill said that after extensive testing and sea trials. Carnival Splendor is totally ship shape and certified to sail once again by Lloyd’s Registry of Ships and the U.S. Coast Guard.
Getting Clients Back Onboard
Approximately 47,000 people booked on Carnival Splendor were “impacted” during the months when the ship was pulled out of service for drydock repairs; their cruises were cancelled.
Many who were inconvenienced were rebooked on other Carnival cruises, some others opted for refunds. So what’s the potential for attracting past guests or potential new clients to the ship after such a high-visibility situation?
From the perspective of several trade experts, guests are definitely returning. Thankfully, people have short memories, according to Michelle Fee, founder and CEO of Cruise Planners.
“I doubt if you asked 100 people -- those who were not on that sailing – as to which ship had the problem, 99 of them probably wouldn’t even know the cruise line,” Fee said. “We have had no issues with booking the ship.”
Amber Blecker, CruiseOne, Aurora, Colo., concurred with Fee: “While a few clients might hesitate, a look at ships with past fire incidents [including Star Princess] shows that memories are short,” she noted. “It quickly becomes a novelty trivia fact rather than a psychological impediment to choosing a particular ship.”
Blecker also pointed out that the Carnival Splendor – launched in summer 2008 -- is still the newest ship on the West Coast and one of the few year-round options there. She believes the ship will continue to be popular with passengers seeking a traditional Mexican Riviera cruise or a seven-night, close-to-home option.
“I expect that the Carnival Splendor event won't have much if any effect on future bookings [for that ship],” Blecker said. “I've not experienced any prospective passengers who have indicated hesitation [due to the incident] in choosing that ship for future cruises.
Cahill said the line’s cruises from the West Coast are generally sailing full but booking at lower than normal pricing. To a great degree, however, that reflects a sluggish California economy and consumer fears about traveling to Mexico.
Cahill told reporters that he believes Mexico is safe for cruisers, given the ports where cruise ships call and cruisers go ashore. He noted that Carnival met with port, city and Mexican security officials after a few highly publicized incidents in Mazatlan last month; he indicated his satisfaction with the results.
He acknowledged, though, that perception and reality are often two different things. Some U.S. consumers are apparently still shying away – particularly if they don’t understand the geography south of the border.
Blecker had a unique perspective on the ship’s return to Mexico sailings: “With more and more passengers choosing to remain in port in Mexican towns, the ship as destination choice becomes more important, and Carnival Splendor offers a full slate of activities to keep passengers busy and happy onboard.” In other words, that’s a plus for Carnival on the route.
As for West Coast cruising overall, “we’re now back to our full California capacity,” Cahill stated. Carnival, which started serving southern California in 1982, is the region’s largest cruise operator.
Year-round from Long Beach, Carnival Paradise operates three- and four-night cruises, while Carnival Splendor operates the seven-night cruises. Through spring 2012, Carnival also offers seasonal San Diego cruises. In total, it typically carries 450,000 passengers plus from southern California.
Cost and Cause
The Carnival Splendor fire incident has cost Carnival $65 million, according to Cahill. That encompasses such factors as ship repairs, passenger refunds, rebooking actions, free future cruises or discounts, and unexpected air transportation and hotel charges.
While the official safety investigation by the U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board continues, Cahill told the press group that the fire happened after a “catastrophe failure” of a generator, “something you don’t expect and certainly not on a ship two years old.”
Cahill stressed that Carnival is proactively moving to take its own steps to enhance safety and assure that a similar situation does not happen again. Carnival has set up a new Fire Safety Task Force, comprised of 18 people who will work to enhance the line’s prevention, detection, suppression and response to any potential fire situation. The task force will focus on the entire fleet, not just Carnival Splendor or that class of vessel.
Carnival Splendor, as with many other ships, has a forward and aft engine room and many operational redundancies designed to keep the ship running in an emergency. But the intense heat from the fire melted insulation around electrical cables, thus causing a ship-wide power failure.
Cahill said engine room sensors did detect a problem with the generator, but did so only two to three seconds prior to the catastrophic failure. That wasn’t enough time for the crew to react and avert a fire.
“But there are things we can do,” he stressed. Carnival has since added more sensors, additional fire suppression equipment and more insulation to protect electrical cabling.
So, the line hopes its safety efforts will help prevent any similar situation from occurring in the future on any Carnival ship. Cahill said fire damage on the ship was contained in the aft engine room, and in the switchboard rooms above the engine room.
He said there was no major damage to the ship in public areas; a few water-logged carpets were replaced.
In addition, Carnival used the unexpected drydock to complete routine maintenance and updates. For example, the gym flooring was replaced. The ship’s hull was painted with a new silicon-based paint that will help the vessel glide through the water more easily and save on fuel.
The ship also was outfitted with equipment that will allow Carnival to plug into shoreside electrical power -- rather than run diesel generators when docked at Long Beach. That’s an environmental plus. Cahill said that once Long Beach completes shoreside work for that power connection, the ship is ready to plug in.
A Look Back
Fortunately, no passengers or crew members were injured in the November incident. During the fire, John Heald, the line’s veteran cruise director who was working on Carnival Splendor at the time of the incident, updated guests over the PA system -- every 20 minutes at points -- to keep people calm and to maintain control.
At this week’s press event, Heald praised the entire crew for heroic efforts in both fighting the fire and in helping guests in the aftermath; some crew members hauled food up multiple staircases, given that elevators were out of service. Other Carnival employees worked around the clock to get the ship repaired as quickly as possible, even giving up their Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays to do so.
Heald also said Cahill was at the gangway to meet guests when the stricken ship returned to San Diego. Cahill apologized on behalf of the line, listened to guest comments, helped guests carry luggage and thanked crew members.
It was noticed. “They did a lot of the right stuff, according to Jack Mannix, industry veteran, consultant and principal at Jack E. Mannix & Associates. “From what I could tell, they did an outstanding job of communicating.”
Mannix added: “But they didn’t just manage the PR side of it [although he believes that too was done well]. They also took good care of their guests and Gerry Cahill did what he needed to do – taking a personal interest. First, that was the right thing to do, but more than that, it will come back to them with respect from loyal customers.”
Cahill, who became a bit emotional during the press event in praising his shoreside staff and the Splendor’s crew, acknowledged: “It’s made us a stronger organization.”
During the incident, it was erroneously reported that the line had brought in Spam to feed all guests, which wasn’t the case. Cahill wanted to set things straight at the press event. While 70 palettes of food were delivered to the ship, he stressed that only one half of one palette was Spam.
And that’s only because vendors were told to make a substitution if something the line had ordered over the phone simply wasn’t available. Cahill said his food and beverage manager was mortified by the media reports.
Fortunately, guests sailing this week on Carnival Splendor’s first post-repair revenue cruise are chowing down on everything expected on a cruise — from pizza to prime rib, soft serve ice cream to lobster tail. It’s one sure sign that this Fun ship is back in business.