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Would your cruise have fewer problems if Americans ran it?

May 1, 2013 at 8:24 AM ET

NCL Hawaii
AP/NCL Corp
The Pride of Hawaii pulls into Kauai's Nawiliwili Harbor early Sunday, May 28, 2006, to dock in Hawaii for the first time in Lihue, Hawaii. The 2,400 passenger ship was one of three U.S.-flagged cruise ships sailing under the NCL America brand. Today, only one, the Pride of America, still sails the Islands under a U.S. flag.

With one cruise ship problem after the other in the news lately, it's worth asking, who's driving the boat?

Earlier this month, the cruise line waters were roiled by Tom Bethel, president of American Maritime Officers (AMO), the union that represents U.S. merchant marine officers, who suggested that one reason the cruise industry has had so many mishaps lately is the lack of American officers on board.

“None of these recent incidents involved an American-flagged ship and none of these incidents involved an American officer,” he told Steve Doocy of Fox & Friends. “American passengers taking cruises today, I believe, would feel a lot more comfortable and a hell of a lot safer if they knew they had American officers manning the bridge and engine rooms of these vessels.”

Christine Duffy, president and CEO of the industry trade group Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), rebutted in an open letter that, “all crewmembers, regardless of nationality, undergo rigorous training before serving on a cruise ship and participate in continuous drills and exercises to hone their skills."

Today, all but one of the ships operated by the major U.S. cruise lines are registered in a foreign country, with many flying the flags of Bermuda, Panama or the Bahamas.

Each country oversees operational and maintenance regulations and ensures that ships under its flag adhere to international maritime standards.

For proponents of the system, utilizing a foreign flag of registry allows ship owners to register vessels in countries where they find the services they need. For critics, such flags are little more than flags of convenience that circumvent U.S. laws and avoid U.S. taxes. Meanwhile, the cruisers sail on mostly unaware. Until something goes wrong.

“People don’t fully understand that when they sail out of U.S. territorial waters, they’re essentially in a no man’s land,” said Jim Walker, a maritime attorney in Miami. “If there’s anyone overseeing the ship’s operation, it’s a country like Panama or the Bahamas.”

At the same time, any “flag state” worth its reputation will also be a signatory to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) a set of guidelines administered by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a specialized agency that’s part of the United Nations.

But, Walker said, IMO guidelines are just that: “People talk about international maritime laws, but there’s no such thing as IMO law,” he told NBC News. “There are no consequences when people break them.”

That burden typically falls to the “port states” where ships operate when they’re carrying passengers. As with flag states, each country has its own regulatory protocols; in the U.S., adherence is enforced by the Coast Guard which inspects foreign-flagged ships twice a year.

The result “is a very fractured industry where customers are relying on the tender mercies of the businesses they’re patronizing,” said Bob Jarvis, a professor of maritime law at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. “Because of the jurisdiction issues — the flag state, the port state, international waters — it’s just a mess.”

Which is not to say that cruise ships are unsafe or that foreign crews are inferior to American ones; for Jarvis, it just means that the industry is more self-regulated than people realize. When push comes to shove, the cruise lines maintain compliance with operational, training and safety standards less because the law says they must and more because the price of not doing so is so high.

“It’s in the cruise lines' best interest to do the right thing — grudgingly — because on a cost/benefit analysis, it costs them less to do the right thing than it does to deal with it afterwards,” he told NBC News.

“The problem with Carnival Triumph wasn’t a crew problem; it was because they didn’t have back-up generators,” he said. “They’re spending $300 million to retrofit their ships, not because the law isn’t on their side but because they don’t want the public relations nightmare and they don’t want to be punished by Wall Street when people stop going on their ships."

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.

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