Cruise Lines Send Crew Members Home

file photo
file photo

Published Apr 8, 2020 6:27 PM by Allan E. Jordan

The cruise lines are being challenged with how to handle the crew aboard their ships in the face of the continuing public health crisis. Initially, as the coronavirus (COVID-19) forced the suspension in operations, the lines had maintained their crews. Now as the suspension is extended many of the cruise lines are quietly working to repatriate non-essential crew members from the ships.

Worldwide there are approximately 300 ocean-going cruise ships with over 200,000 crew members, with the largest portion in North America. Currently, it is estimated that there are 52,000 crew members aboard 73 cruise ships either moored or anchored in or near U.S. ports, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. Of that number, 35 cruise ships are in Florida with 35,000 crew members, while the others are in ports on the Gulf Coast and California. A further 41,000 crew members are also on ships in the vicinity of the U.S., bring the total to 93,000 crew members in and around the U.S., according to the Coast Guard.

When the operational pause began in mid-March, the cruise ships remained mostly fully staffed.  The hotel crews were put to work maintaining and deep cleaning the ships, exercise programs were instituted, and team meetings and training programs also continued. Recognizing that the crews were far from home, feeling isolated and concerned about family and friends, most of the cruise lines also enhanced Wifi and Internet access. In some cases, the crew was even given access to the normally off-limits passenger amenities. 

As it has become apparent that the pause in operation will likely be extended, the cruise lines have shifted strategy working to reduce the mounting financial pressures. The cruise lines’ spokespeople are reluctant to discuss the details, or even confirm what is being done, but the cruise companies, including Carnival Corporation, MSC Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, Royal Caribbean Cruises, and others, all appear to be working to reduce the numbers of the non-essential crew onboard.  

“Obviously it is not an easy task to suddenly send crew members home as they are from many different geographical locations throughout the world,” says C. Patrick Scholes, an analyst with SunTrust Robinson Humphrey. “Bottom line, this is an industry under extreme financial pressure and the cruise lines have to find any way to cut costs, this being one such method.” 

While the individual cruise companies are taking different approaches to the challenges, hotel crew members are generally being furloughed. Some of the lines are terminating or suspending crew contracts, either continuing wages or making compensation payments till May or June. There are reports of charter flights transporting crew members to various destinations including Indonesia and The Philippines, and in some cases to Europe, depending on the local travel restrictions.  

Crew members that cannot be transported home, or chose not to travel, are being allowed to stay on their ships, receive food, lodging, and medical care, but if they are in a position deemed non-essential they are not being permitted to work and receive pay. The essential crew in the navigation and engineering areas, and the staff that provides their food and services, are continuing under their current employment contracts.

According to crew members speaking with the website Crew-Center.com, the cruise lines have been shifting ships around to arrange for the transportation. For example, Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas, which had been sailing from San Juan, was forced to sail to Florida to disembark her passengers before going to Barbados for the crew’s charter flights. Other ships have also been seen in Barbados, including AIDA Cruises and TUI, with the other flights originating from Florida, California, possibly the Bahamas, and Dubai. 

International travel restrictions have been complicating these efforts. Returning crew members arriving in Manila are being told they must self-quarantine in hotels and even then in some cases are being shunned in local communities due to the fears of the virus. As of April 4, 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also “updated its recommendations to help U.S. cruise ship travelers (passengers and crew) get home as quickly and safely as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic.”  

They are requiring that all travel be completed on private or charter transportation, that everyone needs to wear a face mask or cloth face covering, maintain social distances, and stay home for 14 days after reaching their destination. The cruise lines have also been directed to enhance onboard medical facilities to keep crew members reporting symptoms onboard coordinating with the Coast Guard evacuations only when deemed medically necessary.

The global travel restrictions have also prompted several creative solutions to complete the reparations of crew members. According to reports on the website Crew-Center.com, Royal Caribbean Cruises transferred crew members between several of its ships, including the Ovation of the Seas, the Spectrum of the Seas, and the Voyager of the Seas, which are now sailing to Indonesia, the Philippines and Shanghai with a reported combined total of over 2,500 crew members. Carnival Australia, P&O Australia, and Princess Cruises are reportedly also responding to Australia’s order for foreign cruise ships to depart the region using ships including the Carnival Spirit, Carnival Splendor, Pacific Explorer, Pacific Aria, Sun Princess, and Sea Princess to transport crew to Indonesia and the Philippines.

Commenting on what these efforts might mean for the cruise industry’s future, analyst Scholes said, “It signals that these ships are not about to start sailing with customers anytime soon. Not having adequate staffing will make it harder to quickly resume sailings.”

The same travel restrictions that are complicating the efforts to de-crew the ships may make it difficult to bring the ships back into service. Robert Kwortnik, an associate professor at Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration, points out, “Even when governments declare an all-clear, the industry will face significant challenges in re-crewing ships. The typical cruise ship has crew from all over the world, but whether this crew will be available when the industry is ready to set sail again will demand a massive coordinated effort.”

Most industry observers agree, with the focus still on controlling and mitigating the virus, the resumption of normal travel patterns may take far longer than originally hoped. The cruise lines’ current efforts to repatriate crew members apparently reflect this along with the need to lower near-term costs to improve the financial positions of the corporations.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.