On Friday evening of 13th January the cruise ship Costa Concordia smashed against the rocks of Isola Giglio in Italian waters, tilted to its side and capsized. Suspicions were soon raised rather unexpectedly blaming this tragic accident on grave misconduct of the captain of the ship. The recording of conversations between the officer of the Italian Coast Guard and captain Francesco Schettino, fleeing from the ship, are most disturbing. Allegations running against the captain are highly discomforting, ranging from negligence, poor judgement, and to outright disregard for the lives of his passengers and crew.
The Costa Concordia carried about 3,200 passengers and a thousand (1,000) crew members. Seventeen (17) victims who lost their lives are confirmed at the time of writing this post, and there are still 15 people missing. Fortunately enough, since the massive cruise ship landed in a spot where water is not so deep, the ship did not sink completely and the vast majority of people on board could escape by swimming or be evacuated safely to the shores of Toscana. Giving full tribute to Concordia’s victims, we should be thankful that this disaster did not end worse and that so many of the people on board are survivors.
The cruise ship belonged to the company Costa Cruises, an Italian subsidiary of British-American Carnival Corporation. It was built together with six ship-sisters in the previous decade in the same shipyard in Italy. Concordia, inaugurated in 2006, was the largest and most glamorous of them all. It was Costa’s flag-ship, literally. At first the company faced fears that the cause of accident could be a technical or physical failure of some sort. This would mean that all sisters of Concordia would have to be grounded. If the failure could not be repaired, it was speculated, financial losses would be immense. Seniors at the company may be relieved now that this is not the case, but instead they will have to bear the shame and embarrassment from the alleged behaviour of their ship captain and the public anger targeted against them, with all their potential negative consequences.
According to a statement issued by the company on 15th January and posted on their website (1), Schettino joined Costa Cruises in 2002 as a safety officer and was appointed captain in 2006. It is not yet clear what has led captain Schettino to manoeuver the ship so irresponsibly: was it to impress one of his officers, to “show-off” to a female friend, or just being negligent? However, it is already difficult to comprehend the captain’s behaviour after the accident had occurred. Apparently the captain understood he has done wrong and became more concerned about not being caught by the Italian authorities than helping in safeguarding the lives of his passengers and crew. Another account by an officer on bridge suggests Schettino was merely panicking (2). Most bizarre are the excuses ‘il capitano’ has given the Coast Guard’s officer about his whereabouts, suggesting for instance that he “fell off” from the ship’s deck and right into a lifeboat below the ship. According to the transcript of the conversation, it is implied that at some point he was actually already some distance away from the ship nearing the coast and was ordered to return to the site of accident. This conduct of Schettino after the accident may have an even stronger negative impact on travelers’ attitudes than his conduct leading to the accident.
There is an aspect in the chain of events on the night of the accident that passengers were not prepared for; while many passengers were probably not aware of the behaviour of the captain in a situation that was hard already for them, this was revealled soon in the aftermath of the accident. Thereby it created much rage among passengers and the public. Let us look more closely at this aspect.
People tend to underestimate the probability of negative events like fires or fatal car accidents that might occur to them. When going on a cruise, passengers may take into consideration that the ship could be caught in a gusty storm or strike a rock but they try to weigh down these scenarios. But just in case, most travellers take a travel insurance. This human approach generally allows us to take actions like going on vacation without worrying too much about negative contingencies. However, tourists who are over-confident in their skills (e.g., swimming, skiing) or their judgement (i.e., assessing certain events so unlikely that they can be ignored, strongly holding a belief that “it will not happen to me”), they are susceptible of behaving recklessly or foolishly, and they may also choose not to take a travel insurance.
Yet, passengers of the Costa Concordia have found out that someting happened on the night of accident that their usual mechanisms of self-protection could not help them in this case — a breach of trust by the captain responsible for their safety in sea. The alleged role of the captain in causing the accident by acting unprofessionally and with disrespect to his usual duties as captain of a cruise ship means that this accident was completely avoidable. It is hardly conceivable by passengers that the captain will be directly involved in causing an accident on a ship of the scale of Concordia. Primarily, the conduct of captain Schettino abandoning the ship, leaving behind his passengers and crew, stands against the norm and commonplace belief that the captain always stays last on board to orchestrate rescue operations even at the risk of his own life, as famously did Edward John Smith, of the Titanic in 1912.
The Greater the Unpleasant Surprise, the Stronger Negative Impact on Travellers Expected
The surprise evoked by the circumstances surrounding the accident, shaking-up of strong beliefs about the responsibility of the captain and his senior officers for the well-being of passengers, and the eventual breach of trust are the kind of factors likely to have a specially strong effect on travelers’ attitudes and behaviour. Tourists are likely to feel more vulnerable. They will start questioning the confidence they have put in this cruising company and its senior officers, which may easily spill to other cruisers. The stressing situation may further evoke emotions of frustration and anger. It is difficult to predict for how long these negative effects will prevail but they can very well hurt the tourist industry, particularly in leisure cruises, for the next couple of years.
Was it actually a freak incident in the behaviour of Schettino? Was his conduct on this occasion in complete contradiction to his previous behaviour as captain that the company’s management could not suspect him to fail so badly in his last cruise? These are heavy-weight questions that investigators of the accident will probably address. It is yet pre-mature to doubt the decision of Costa Cruises to hire him in the first place or appoint him to be captain. It also is too easy to find signs of misconduct in hindsight (e.g., “the captain was partying”), because “early signs” receive greater attention, appearing more obvious after the event. Nevertheless, investigators will have to enquire if there were any signs ignored by Schettino’s superiors which should have increased their scrutiny regarding his performance as captain. Prosecuters in Italy intend to charge captain Schettino with multiple manslaughter, causing a shipwreck, and abandoning the ship before all passengers and crew evacuated (2).
The Costa Cruises company (and the mother-company Carnival Corp.) already has to bear the loss of its ship Costa Concordia, and in the short to mid-term it can expect to face multiple law suits and pay compensation to passengers and their families and cover the cost of removing the ship wreck from water. Last Friday (30th January) the company reached an agreement with a coalition of consumer groups that it will pay €11,000 to each passenger on top of refund for the cruise cost, medical and transportation expenses (3); but nothing is final as some passenger groups already express discontent. Furthermore, concerns have been raised of environmental damages to the sea and coast that the company will have to help and fix or compensate Italy for them. After that, the company is likely to face economic losses in the mid- to long-term because of tourists’ reluctance to travel with them again. Costa Cruises is going to remember captain Schettino for a very long time.
Italians are also going to remember their native Schettino for many years as an infamous captain. It looks like the last thing Italy needed at this time. He has potentially caused a blast to their tourist industry when their economy needs mostly a boost. The Italians have every reason to be angry with him. Most surely, he will not be forgiven for a very long time for embarrassing Italy so badly.
Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)
(1) Statements issued by Costa Cruises associated with the Concordia’s accident: http://www.costacruise.com/B2C/USA/Info/concordia_statement.htm
(2) “Costa Concordia Captain ‘Distracted by Guests on Bridge’,” The Guardian Online, 23 January 2012 http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jan/23/costa-concordia-captain-distracted-guests
(3) “Costa Concordia Company Offers Passengers Compensation,” BBC News Online, 29 January 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-16754771