The luxury small ships such as those owned by Azamara, Crystal, Oceania, Paul Gauguin, Ponant, Hapag-Lloyd, Regent, Seabourn, Silversea, and Windstar are safer from Covid-19 than any other cruise vessels. Carrying 150-1300 guests, these are the new crown jewels of cruising because they can meet most of the European Union’s new “suggested” standards for cruise ships nearly immediately. Hapag-Lloyd, Ponant and Paul Gauguin are already sailing, and they meet many of the EU “suggestions” already. Suggestions appears in quotes because the cruise lines will be further exposed to law suits if they ignore these safety standards.
You can make too much of only the luxury small ships sailing. The entire Seabourn fleet carries fewer guests than one Carnival Cruise Line (Seabourn’s owner) resort ship. The same is true for the Azamara and the Silversea fleets, which are owned by Royal Caribbean, and the Oceania and Regent fleets which are owned by Norwegian. The reason that the luxury small ships are so important, however, is that they pave the way for larger ships to introduce the same innovations, even if these may be more difficult and costly.
The luxury small ships boast sufficient space in most public areas to permit everyone to practice social distancing. They have enough specialty restaurants and staff to feed everyone without resorting to self-service buffets. Their guest-to-crew ratios can make waiting in lines a thing of the past, and the clubby atmosphere is such that everyone (more or less willingly) will wear masks both aboard ship and ashore. Also, since nearly every cabin can get fresh air by opening balcony doors, or windows, the few inside cabins can remain vacant until their ventilation systems can be improved.
Also, many of the luxury small ships will probably follow Hapag-Lloyd, Oceania and Ponant’s lead by having onboard medical labs capable of testing crew members and guests as often as needed and isolation cabins set aside for newly infected guests and crew, just as the new EU standards “suggest.” Europa II, one of Hapag-Lloyd’s luxury small ships, now includes telemetry links that permits sick guests in the medical suites to be monitored and diagnosed from medical facilities thousands of miles away.
However, even with all this, the cruise lines are unlikely to fill these small ships. Why? Because most guests on these ships are loath to fly on the planes needed to take them to and from their destinations.
Emirates is the closest to changing the game.
Effective this month, every passenger and crew member will be required to test Negative within 96 hours of beginning their flight. Onboard luggage placed in overhead compartments will be prohibited. Instead, each passenger is limited to one small carry-on that fits under a seat. This makes it unnecessary for them to leave their seats unless they are going to the head; and it will permit boarding and deplaning to proceed with fewer delays. Also, at least until the fall, middle seats will not be filled. All these decisions will vastly improve passengers’ feelings of safety aboard the planes.
These perceptions could be improved even more by offering guests optional door-to-door luggage services through major carriers such as FedEx or UPS (eliminating most airport delays), and having restrooms cleaned by crew members every time they are used. Passenger flight fares may have to be raised, especially to keep middle seats in Economy vacant until inoculations can be required, but the changes have the potential for returning both airlines and the cruise ships to profitability.
None of the Emirates innovations, and the ones I suggest, require new technology. They are all available immediately, if someone is willing to bear the marketing risk. This is particularly true when it comes to universal testing with rapid results. According to its press releases, Emirates is slated to become the first global airline to require an absolute proof of negative coronavirus test results regardless of the final destination. This is not foolproof, EU authorities warn, but it will go a long way toward curing most passengers’ new fear of flying.
It may also convince public health authorities in many countries not to prohibit citizens of the United States from flying and touring Europe. Indeed, last week the CEOs of United, American, and Lufthansa Airlines proposed exactly this: Require testing of all passengers and crew, if this will permit EU travel restrictions to be lifted. “We believe it is critical to find a way to re-open air services between the U.S. and Europe,” the CEOs’ wrote in their letter.
Just as importantly, if travel advisors and the cruise lines get behind requiring universal testing on all international flights, the travel industry can get back to profitably when these requirements are broadened to include domestic travel and all cruises. Just as small luxury ships are leading the charge for all ships improving their safety, Emirates will lead the charge among airlines and will probably be followed by other luxury airlines by the time this column appears. The major U.S. airlines will likely follow if a deal with the EU is struck.
The major engineering challenge remaining for virtually all cruise ships is providing high-quality ventilation and filtration for all public rooms, guest staterooms, and crew areas. The EU standard goes so far as to suggest medical suites that have negative air pressure to prevent viruses from spreading; and setting aside 5% of the cabins (singles for quarantining possibly infected guests and doubles for possibly infected crew) on voyages that can’t reach ports in 24 hours; or reserving 1% of the cabin space on all ships wherever they may be going. The standards also require twelve, 100%-exchanges of air per hour for some interior areas. It’s probably “suggestions” such as these – along with new distancing and logistics requirements – that caused Princess to defer sailings, except for those that cruise Australia, until mid-December or perhaps longer.
The suggestion that we find most questionable is limiting cruises to 3-7 days at first. This is not what small luxury ships guests have in mind when they fly 16-24 hours to meet a cruise, and new requirements such as testing all passengers every 7 or 14 days may make this suggestion unnecessary. Next week we will review the EU recommendations, most of which experienced cruisers will welcome. We will try to highlight the most useful and the most problematic. We’ll also let you know which kinds ships will have particular difficulty in satisfying some of them.
Dr. Steve Frankel and his wife have sailed on most of the Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal, Azamara, Oceania, Regent, and Windstar ships on more than 40 cruises. Steve’s company, Cruises & Cameras, LLC, partners with LUXE Travel, a FROSCH Company, and the Signature Travel Network. Since the start of the Covid-19 Pandemic, he’s earned two certificates in epidemiology from Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. He’s using what he has learned in six courses, along with his earlier training in measurement and statistics, to help his clients deal with the realities of the pandemic. His most recent book is How to Plan Your Next and BEST Cruise (Amazon, 2019, 186 pages). His email address is Steve@CruisesAndCameras.com.