Cruise ships are not the answer for more U.S. maritime jobs

Editor’s note: The following letter responds to Capt. Sean Tortora’s article “Americans pay for cruise industry’s flags of convenience” that ran in Professional Mariner’s Oct.-Nov. issue.

Capt. Tortora wonders how many Americans planning on cruising would be appalled to know there is only one U.S.-flagged ocean cruise ship, while all others operate under flags of convenience (FOC). The answer: They wouldn’t care. 

Cruising is popular because the model works. The reason there are no other cruise ships in the American flag is that it wouldn’t work, at least not without major economic and cultural changes in the U.S. If one would recall, the agreement with Norwegian Cruise Line to operate a U.S.-flagged cruise ship between the Hawaiian Islands required them to operate an American-built ship. That didn’t work out, and it required them to operate a U.S.-flagged ship out of New York. That didn’t work either.

Tortora also intimates that FOC ships may not be safe despite STCW requirements. He says foreign states may not have the resources to ensure compliance. But compliance is effectively ensured by the classification society (in many cases the American Bureau of Shipping). And the foreign state doesn’t pay for that certification — the cruise line does. Compliance is further assured by the port state inspection process. As far as corruption and graft in foreign states … well, I wish the U.S was free from that, but evidence suggests otherwise.

Tortora correctly notes the wage differential between foreign crewmembers and their U.S. counterparts. But trying to operate a cruise ship with an American crew would triple the wage cost, and work rules demanded by union contracts would impact service levels on the cruise. FOC ship wages are determined by the market; if they weren’t adequate, they would not be able to get workers. And while the wages are lower than they would be for Americans, the pay is good in crewmembers’ home countries. If crewmembers of cruise ships that operate out of the U.S. and other developed countries were abused, passengers would see it for themselves. And the Maritime Labor Convention addresses those practices.

Claiming cruise ships are a defense asset needed to transport troops in case of war is a non sequitur. With one very minor exception, no ship has been used to transport troops since early in the Vietnam War. I doubt any current defense plan calls for troop ships.

Capt. Tortora’s suggestion that the “government” require cruise lines to re-flag in the U.S. would destroy major segments of the industry. Cruises from U.S. ports would become unaffordable, and cruise lines would simply find ways to get U.S. passengers to foreign ports to start and end their cruises. 

As it is, FOC ships create many U.S jobs. These are in the offices, in husbanding services, in inspection services and in shipboard entertainment. And, there are U.S. citizens in the marine crews (admittedly not many, but there is no prohibition). The ships pay U.S. port, pilot and tugboat fees. They buy U.S. fuel. The U.S-based parts of the corporations and the people who work for them pay U.S. taxes.

If we’re looking for ways to increase employment for American seamen, cruise ships are a poor place to look. Better to ask such questions such as: How is it that one of the largest and most successful shipping lines in the world is in Denmark, and not in the U.S.? How is it that high-wage countries such as France, Germany, Italy and others can build cruise ships and we can’t? How is it that Korea, Japan and other countries with unionized workforces can build ships for foreign trade, and we can’t? Why can’t we compete based on the regulatory requirements and costs to maintain a ship in the U.S.? Why are the Scandinavian countries the leaders in non-military maritime technology and not the U.S.? How is it that ships that we pay millions to subsidize (i.e., MSP) are not built in America?

I’m an American seaman and proud of the history and contributions of the U.S. Merchant Marine. But a successful industry cannot be built on government subsidy and demands. How we lost the competitive edge in shipping and shipping technology is a complicated issue. Getting it back first requires being able to compete.

Capt. Allee (ret.) is a graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. He commanded destroyers, prepositioned ships and other vessels during his career in the Navy and U.S. Maritime Service. 

By Professional Mariner Staff