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Study finds improved cruise safety, with incidents down despite capacity spike

Peter Wild - During time of rapid growth in passenger volume, cruise ships 'not only maintained their exceptional safety record, but were also shown to be safer than most other forms of travel'
Cruise ship operational incidents—fires, groundings, collisions, breakdowns—declined from 2009 to 2013 even as industry capacity soared, a new study found.

Over the five-year period—which includes the deadly Costa Concordia capsize—operational incidents fell 13%, though worldwide cruise capacity grew more than 18%.

During the same time frame, according to a data analysis by UK-based maritime consultancy G. P. Wild (International) Ltd., cruise travel was safer than other common forms of leisure transportation, even airlines, with the lowest occurrence of operational-related fatalities across all modes of transport.

In addition, the number of cruise ship overboard incidents has declined, while more of the people going overboard have been rescued.

'During this time of rapid growth in passenger volume, cruise ships not only maintained their exceptional safety record, but were also shown to be safer than most other forms of travel,' said Peter Wild, managing director of G. P. Wild.

'The industry is safe and improving,' he told Seatrade Insider, adding that the study, to his knowledge, is the most in-depth comparison of leisure transportation safety ever conducted.

It was commissioned by Cruise Lines International Association, and full results are posted at Wild said he assessed all cruise data worldwide, not just that involving CLIA member lines, although those comprise most of the business.

The study used 36 publicly available sources, including government data, trade publications and media reports. Every incident was identified and validated across two sources.

'When looking at the total of both significant and minor operational incidents, the absolute percent change between 2009 and 2013 was a decline of 13%, as industry capacity increased 18% during the same period,' Wild said.

The cruise industry's safety record is as good or better than that of the airlines, the study found.

From 2009 to 2013, passenger and crew deaths on cruise ships totaled 50, or 0.029 per million passenger-days, compared to 2,787 crew and passenger deaths on airlines, or 0.197 per million passenger-days. In terms of distances traveled, during the five-year period cruise ship and airline fatalities were equally low: 0.19 per billion passenger miles.

In 2011, when there is the most recent comparable data across transport sectors, the incidence of passenger and crew fatalities on a cruise was one of the lowest with 0.08 per billion passenger miles compared to 0.16 among world airlines, 0.8 on US general aviation, 7.6 on US highways and 11.9 on US rail, the study found.

From 2009 through 2013, cruise capacity increased 18.6%, from 349,900 berths to 414,800 berths, with more than 21m people cruising in 2013. Overall incidents dropped as more people took seagoing vacations. 

There were 102 'significant operational incidents' involving cruise ships over the five-year period. These were defined as causing more than 24 hours' delay or passenger or crew injuries or fatalities. There were 50 deaths (31 passengers and 19 crew) and a total of 215 injuries from these incidents.

They included fires, technical incidents, strandings/groundings, storm or rogue-wave damages, collisions/allisions and incidents such as persons overboard. There were 21 such incidents in 2009, 27 in 2010, 15 in 2011, 18 in 2012 and 21 in 2013.

In the same five-year period there were 101 'minor operational incidents,' defined as causing a ship delay of less than 24 hours or minor injuries to passengers or crew.

While persons overboard have received widespread coverage, leading to the  impression that numbers are on the rise, the data showed they're actually declining, from 23 involving passengers and crew in 2009 to 12 in 2013. The total number of overboards during the five-year period was 96. Eighty of those were fatal.

Overboard fatalities declined, from 19 in 2009 to 13 in 2013.

'The thing that was unexpected, and good to see, is that the amount of people overboard who were rescued—a very difficult thing—grew about 20%. That's commendable,' Wild said.

CLIA's Mike McGarry, svp public affairs, said the improvements in safety reflect the industry's ongoing review of best practices, focus on continuous improvement and adaption of proactive safety policies.

'It's really good to have an unbiased, completely factual analysis to compare objectively with all our safety efforts,' added CLIA's Bud Darr, svp technical and regulatory affairs.

G.P. Wild's sources ranged from major daily newspapers like The New York Times and the Daily Telegraph to maritime publications like Lloyds List and Seatrade Cruise Review to official websites like the US National Transportation Safety Board, US Department of Transportation, US Coast Guard, UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch, UK Civil Aviation Authority, International Civil Aviation Authority, European Commission and International Maritime Organization.

As well, data were gleaned from numerous other sites, among them,,,, and