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Bumped in the Baltic

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On October - 23 - 2006

Last winter, Rosemary and Ken Spencer booked their seven-day Baltic cruise with MSC Cruises through their local travel agent in Oshawa, Ontario. Rosemary called it “the cruise of a lifetime” and a chance to spend some quality time with her 86-year-old mother, who lives in England. But in late March, two months before sailing and two weeks after Rosemary had made the final payment, her travel agent called with some shocking news: The Spencers had been bumped off the ship to make room for a charter group.

Bumped by MSC Cruises

When Rosemary first visited her travel agent to book her Baltic trip, she had never heard of MSC Cruises. That’s not surprising. MSC Cruises is not a household name in North America, though it has a presence in the Caribbean during the winter season. But MSC Cruises is well known in Europe, where it is a fast-rising star in the cruise industry. The cruise line is a division of Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), the world’s largest privately owned shipping company, which operates a fleet of more than 300 cargo ships. The cruise line, which had a modest fleet of three ships in 2001, now has nine ships and expects to add two more by 2010.

The travel agent liked MSC Cruises for the Spencers’ trip. It had the ports they wanted to visit and the schedule they specified — all at a good price. But Rosemary wanted reassurance. Her travel plans included a month-long visit with her mother in England, and those plans involved independent air arrangements and special tours that could accommodate her mother. The cruise would be the capstone of the trip and Rosemary, who had heard that cruises were sometimes canceled, wanted to be certain this one was a go. Her agent said of course it was.

So you can imagine Rosemary’s reaction some months later when her agent called to report that the Spencers had been bumped off the cruise — along with all the other passengers — because a large business group had chartered the ship. There was compensation, of course. The Spencers got their cruise fares back, and they were given the option to book another cruise at a 25 percent discount. Their travel agent even threw in $150 worth of dining certificates to a local restaurant. Still, Rosemary was enraged. She had invested time and money planning the trip, and there were no other cruise dates that would work for the family.

“I was gob-smacked,” Rosemary says. “After all, I paid for the cruise. Isn’t that a legally binding contract?”

It’s not right, but it’s legal

The short answer is no. No federal or state laws prohibit a cruise line from dumping passengers to take on a charter group; such matters are governed exclusively by the cruise line’s own contract of carriage.MSC Cruises’ Passenger Contract states: “Before the Voyage begins, the Company has the right to cancel the Voyage for any reason without notice. The Company shall refund the full amount of the Fare received, and the Company shall have no further liability whatsoever.”

There it is, in the fine print: The cruise line can do pretty much whatever it wants.

Even some members of the legal profession see it this way. Thomas Dickerson, a judge in Westchester County, N.Y., and the author of “Travel Law,” says, “The unpleasant reality is that the cruise vessel’s responsibilities and your rights as an injured passenger are governed not by modern, consumer-oriented common and statutory law, but by 19th-century legal principals, the purpose of which is to insulate the maritime industry from the legitimate claims of passengers.”

Travel agents aren’t happy with the situation, either. Kathryn Sudeikis, past president of the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), says bumping is a huge issue for the cruise industry. “The position of the travel agent community is it is totally wrong for this to happen; it’s not acceptable,” she says.

“We know it’s going to cost us”

I called Richard Sasso, president of MSC Cruises’ North America Division, to ask about the Spencers’ cruise. Sasso is a cruise industry veteran of 35 years — first with Celebrity Cruises and now MSC — and he was both candid and unapologetic about the bumping situation.

Sasso said MSC Cruise’s policies and procedures are standard industry practice; he even cited Carnival Cruise Line’s decision to charter ships to the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Hurricane Katrina. When I suggested that MSC might have bumped the passengers of an undersold sailing in favor of a more profitable charter opportunity, he said, “That’s business.”
He conceded that when passengers get bumped, “It’s going to cost us something.”

In fact, Sasso considers MSC Cruises’ compensation to be generous. “When this happens, we offer the standard 25 percent off a future cruise with no restrictions,” he says, pointing out that this is more than is required under the contract of carriage. “If you look at our cruise contract verbatim, it’s: ‘Sorry, you don’t get anything.’ Twenty five years ago, if a situation like this happened, it was: ‘Sorry. Here’s your money back,’ and that was it. Today, we have a matrix of what to do in situations like this that did not exist 25 years ago.”

Sudeikis agrees that MSC Cruises’ offer was generous, but argues that generosity should be the benchmark in every case of bumping, because the passengers lose the cruise through no fault of their own. She also found the timing of the cancellation, just two months before sailing, to be disturbing.

Generous or no, the Spencers refused MSC Cruises’ offer because they believed the situation to be highly unfair. In fact, Rosemary feels so strongly about the injustice that she created a Web site called Cruise Bumping, which documents her battle with MSC Cruises and asks for support. In the end, the Spencers spent their month in England with Rosemary’s mother as planned, then took their booked flights to Copenhagen without her. After a tour of the city, they hopped on a train to Stockholm. “I highly recommend the train,” Rosemary says, adding that she wouldn’t touch MSC Cruises again, not even with a barge pole.

After reviewing the Spencers’ case, Sasso said, “Unfortunately, you’re going to have a few that take it to the extreme. … We think our compensation offer is fair.”

What do I think? I think it’s wrong to dump passengers from a cruise only two months from departure simply because a better deal came along. Yes, “That’s business,” but it’s the kind of anti-consumer business that deserves exposure for its injustice.

Filled Under Ombudsman