Why it’ll be many months until every cruise ship is back in service

Jun 29, 2021

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It’s been months since the first cruise ships began operating again in Europe and Asia. And now cruising is restarting in North America, too.

But, for now, the number of ships around the world that are back to sailing with paying passengers remains relatively small. And it could be many months before the bulk of the world’s cruise vessels are back in service.

As Richard Fain, the chairman and CEO of the world’s second-largest cruise company, Royal Caribbean Group, told me on Sunday, the resumption of cruise operations is likely to proceed at a measured pace through the rest of the year — and not because cruise companies are being held back by regulators or travel restrictions around the world.

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Cruise lines are bringing ships back on line at an unhurried pace because that’s the best way to ensure a quality product for their customers, Fain suggested.

“We’re eager to get back [into service], but making sure that we please our guests is a key priority,” Fain said during a one-on-one interview aboard Celebrity Cruises‘ Celebrity Edge — the first cruise ship to restart operations out of a U.S. port.

Royal Caribbean Group owns Celebrity Cruises as well as Silversea and the world’s largest cruise line, Royal Caribbean. It also owns a partial stake in German lines TUI Cruises and Hapag-Lloyd Cruises.

The five brands together operate 62 ships, all of which halted operations in March of 2020 after the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic. The vast majority of the ships still are idled.

Of the three wholly-owned brands, Celebrity is the furthest along in its restart with three of 14 ships back in service (including Celebrity Edge, which just restarted operations on Saturday). Royal Caribbean currently has two of its 25 ships in service. Silversea has two of its nine ships in service.

Celebrity Edge departed from Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades on Saturday, becoming the first major cruise ship to resume operations from a U.S. port in 15 months. (Photo courtesy Celebrity Cruises)

Each of the brands has more ships scheduled to restart operations in the coming weeks. But Fain said it could be the end of the year before they have nearly all of their ships back in operation.

Other major cruise companies such as Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings also have been talking about a measured rollout of ships that could last six months or longer.

As Fain made clear during our talk, putting cruise ships back into operation after a 15-month hiatus is more complicated than you might think.

Fain said getting a ship back into service after a long period out of service involves a ramp-up with crew that’s essentially at the same level of complexity as the process to launch a brand-new ship that’s just emerged from a shipyard — something that’s always taxing on a cruise line.

In a typical year, Royal Caribbean Group brands bring out just two or three new ships. Now, he said, the company is basically facing a new ship launch-type process for 62 vessels at once.

“When we take delivery of a new ship, it’s always a challenge,” Fain said. “And [if there are] two or three a year, it’s always a little bit more of a pressure point. Sixty-two? That’s a little bit more difficult.”

Fain said the crew the company is bringing back to its ships all worked for the line before the shutdown. But they didn’t necessarily work on the same ship to which they are now being assigned, and they weren’t necessarily working with the same people.

As each new ship comes on line, there will be a lot of training and team building that needs to be done, and it’s best to spread that process out over time, he explained.

“To get a ship to work like clockwork requires that the people mesh,” Fain said. “It takes teamwork, and that teamwork takes time to build.”

That’s one reason Royal Caribbean brands are restarting ships with reduced capacity in addition to restarting just a few ships at a time.

“What you don’t want to do is suddenly take a whole bunch of people who don’t know the ship, don’t know their coworkers, and say, ‘tomorrow we want you to be operating a normal cruise,’” he said.

Fain called what the line is doing a methodical approach.

“We want to get it right, not fast,” he said.

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Featured image courtesy of Celebrity Cruises.

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