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TRAVEL INSIDER : How Cruise Lines Cope With QEII-Size Problems : Ships: Industry spends bundles to rectify passenger complaints. But some problems still need bailing out.

August 23, 1992|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

It was a calm and unremarkable night, but three Fridays ago the Queen Elizabeth II gently ran aground. No one was hurt, but 1,850 itineraries were thrown into limbo. And in the wee hours of a weekend night, the top officials of the Cunard Line, operator of the ship, had to confront a recurrent riddle that tests every cruise line now and again:

What price do you put on a customer's discomfort?

Every year, thousands of cruise passengers come home with a staggering variety of complaints, usually on matters of food, service and cabin rattle, but occasionally on such matters as air connections, or the quality of the view from their portholes, or an equipment failure --or running aground.

This doesn't necessarily mean the cruise business is a mess. In fact, cruise lines are healthier than hotels and airlines these days, with bookings rising almost 10% a year and customer service departments reporting complaints from fewer than 1% of passengers. When an industry carries more than 4 million passengers a year, providing bed, breakfast, lunch, dinner, shuffleboard, aerobics and entertainment in between, a few thousand things are bound to go wrong. And occasionally, those things happen on a grand scale.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 20, 1992 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 2 Column 5 Travel Desk 1 inches; 15 words Type of Material: Correction
Cunard ship--In the Aug. 23 Travel Insider column, the cruise ship QE2 was incorrectly referred to as QEII.

It was about 11 p.m. when the QEII lurched. The ship, on the fourth day of a five-day cruise to Nova Scotia, had struck an underwater obstruction near Buzzards Bay, Mass. The 1,850 passengers, each of whom had paid at least $1,040 for the cruise, had to complete the journey back to New York City by ferry, bus and train.

By Saturday afternoon, Cunard officials said, senior vice president Ron Santangelo had sent down instructions on how to compensate customers:

Cunard stocked the passengers' New York-bound railroad cars with open bars. It offered every passenger a $500 credit toward another Cunard cruise. It covered hotel and meal costs for passengers who missed connections out of New York. It contacted ticketholders for the two transatlantic QEII cruises scheduled in August that the line would have to cancel and offered those customers a choice: They could have a full refund plus a round-trip airline ticket to London for their trouble, or they could book another transatlantic QEII cruise later this year and get $1,000 Cunard credit to be used this year or next.

When something that dramatic goes wrong, cruise companies usually move quickly and publicly to demonstrate good faith.

In May, 1989, a Holland America ship suffered an engine problem off San Francisco and had to scrub an itinerary that was to conclude in Vancouver, B.C. The cruise line put up 1,200 passengers in local hotels, paid for their meals, arranged free city tours for them, bought airline tickets to their hometowns or to Vancouver, offered future travel credits and prorated refunds. At a conservative estimate of $150 in added costs per passenger, repairs aside, the bill would have been $180,000. Public relations director Rich Skinner declined to disclose the specific amount but said the number was higher than that.

In early July of this year, an engine malfunction forced Carnival Cruise Line to cancel a three-day cruise from Port Canaveral, Fla., to the Bahamas. The affected customers, Carnival spokeswoman Jennifer de la Cruz said, were offered full refunds and either a $100 discount on a three- to four-day voyage or a $200 discount on a seven-day voyage.

Los Angeles-based Crystal Cruises, a 2-year-old, luxury-oriented company with a single ship (the Crystal Harmony), learned early about the challenge of crisis management. In September, 1990, the company's third month of operations, a fire flared in the Crystal Harmony's engine room. No passengers were hurt, but on the fifth day of the 10-day cruise, passengers had to be flown from Panama back to the United States. The cruise line dispatched employees bearing full refund checks to meet the returning passengers. In addition, the company offered each passenger a $500 credit toward future cruises.

Crystal Cruises faced a more subtle test last October, when fog fouled up return flights for many Crystal passengers returning from a 17-day New York-to-Acapulco cruise. The cruise itself went without a hitch, recalled Darlene Papalini, Crystal's director of public relations and guest relations, but many fogbound passengers had to endure hours on airport Tarmacs in Burbank or Las Vegas before finally returning to LAX to go through customs. Though it bore no responsibility for the weather, airline schedules or customs requirements, the company covered many of its passengers' hotel costs and later also covered claims for further expenses, such as charges for limousine services kept waiting.

"If they're not happy, then we're sunk," said Papalini, who fields letters from passengers for the company. (Such service comes at a price: Crystal is among the costliest cruise lines, often charging more than $400 per day, excluding air fares.)

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