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Our Maritime Blog

Title: Costa Concordia Disaster and Flags of State

Author: Paul M. Hoffman

Category: Costa Concordia Disaster

Date: 2012-01-18

The very recent wreck of the Costa Concordia tragically demonstrates the risk that passengers take when boarding one of the mega-liners so popular today. Because U.S. laws are so favorable to large corporations like cruise lines, many safety laws and regulations simply do not apply to the cruise lines and those that do cannot be enforced, except in certain limited circumstances.

Whie the United States Public Health Service does perform inspections of ships calling on U.S. ports, its inspections have nothing to do with passenger safety, except to insure that galleys are clean. The laws that directly bear on passenger safety, such as how the crew is trained to handle emergencies like the Costa Concordia, are outside the scope of any U.S. enforcement agency. Passengers have to simply trust that the cruise lines are going to do the right thing, whatever that may be. In most cases, that is not going to happen.
There are safety regulations which are supposed to be followed but their enforcement is another matter. The International Maritime Organization or IMO requires that all passengers be evacuated within thirty minutes. But who enforces that standard? The cruise lines? The IMO is part of the United Nations. The UN hardly enforces anything.

The first problem is the Flag of the vessel. Because ships are mobile by nature and travel to different countries, the law allows them to fly the flag of whatever country the shipping company may choose to incorporate itself in. Carnival Corporation, which owns Costa, flags its ships in Panama. But Costa is an independent subsidiary and flies the Italian flag on its ships. The Panamanian government makes its laws super-friendly to corporations like Carnival so as to attract their business. Safety regulations which are burdensome to the cruise lines are not high on Panama's priorities and enforcement of safety regulations by the Panamanian Maritime Authority are non-existent. Neither Italian nor Panamanian authorities board Costa or Carnival ships to ensure that passengers can be evacuated within 30 minutes as the safety laws appear to require.

The most ridiculous example of a Flag States controlling laws that affect millions of passengers was Royal Caribbean, which used to flag its vessels in Liberia. They recently changed this to the Bahamas. Liberia, in case you didn't know, is barely a country, yet our laws which are so favorable to big corporations, allowed RCCL to flag its vessels there. Although the Bahamas aren't a lot better, at least they have a functioning government. But the Bahamian government does not board RCCL shipos when they call on the Bahamas to make sure passengers can be evacuated in 30 minutes.

The Costa Concordia disaster should be a wake-up call for Congress to change some of these laws to protect passengers instead of corporations. Write your Congressman or Congresswoman and tell them that shipping corporations that use U.S. ports and sell cruises to U.S. citizens and derive billions of dollars of income (yes, billions) from U.S. citizens need to comply with U.S. safety regulations. The U.S. Coast Guard should be empowered to board ships owned by Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Norwegian (NCL), Silversea, Oceania, Mediterranean Shipping Corp. and others and test their accident preparedness with simulated drills.

Until these laws change, future Costa Concordia disasters are all but inevitable. Extensive training of crews are expensive and cut into the bottom line. Hopefully, the monetary loss engendered by the Costa Concordia disaster will serve as a wake-up call to the cruise lines but I wouldn't bet on it.