HOUSTON (AP) -- Cruise operators, like airline pilots, may be relying too heavily on electronics to navigate massive ships, losing the knowledge and ability needed to operate a vessel in the case of a power failure, an expert sea pilot told a federal agency on Wednesday.
Capt. Jorge Viso with the Tampa Bay Pilots testified before the National Transportation Safety Board on the second day of a two-day hearing the agency is holding after several high-profile cruise mishaps, including last year's fire aboard the Carnival Triumph that left thousands of passengers stranded for days in squalid conditions aboard a powerless ship adrift in the Gulf of Mexico.
In 2010, a fire also knocked out power to the Carnival Splendor in the Pacific Ocean, also stranding passengers at sea until the vessel could be towed to port. In 2012, the Costa Concordia ship capsized off Italy, killing 32 people.
Cruise ship captains are handling high-tech vessels with state-of-the-art navigations systems, Viso said, but added that he fears they are not as adept at manually handling the massive ships as they become over-dependent on fancy electronics.
"We have noticed a trend for too much reliance on electronic navigation," said Viso, who as a pilot assists large cruise ships get to port in Florida.
"If there is an instrument failure, a control failure or presentation failure there are distinct disadvantages to those not familiar with the handling of a vessel," Viso added, comparing it to a similar phenomenon gaining attention in the airline industry. "There is a definite trend toward driving the ship electronically, and while some may argue that this is the future, we are not there today."
Officials with the federal agency questioned the captain and other cruise operators, executives, training experts and officials about whether the industry was able to keep up with safety needs as ships get larger and hold more passengers.
Budd Darr, senior vice president for technical and regulatory affairs at Cruise Lines International Association, told the panel the size of the largest cruise ships had likely stabilized for now.
But "the average size will increase as we are not constrained by the Panama Canal anymore," Darr said, referring to the expected opening next year of an expansion of that key crossing point.
Viso cautioned, though, that while the ships are continuously growing, port infrastructure is not always keeping up.
Industry officials outlined robust training guidelines, often involving in-depth simulations that take into account situations from how quickly or slowly a passenger might walk to how narrow a corridor might be. The training tends to go well beyond current regulations in an industry that is subject to little enforcement.
Still, Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the NTSB, questioned whether the industry is really safe enough, especially considering how many passengers can now fit aboard a cruise ship. In the more than 100 years since the Titanic accident, the cruise industry, aided by international agreements, has operated at a higher standard, she said.
"But as we have said about other industries, the lack of a major accident is not an indication of a safe operation," Hersman said.
"A key question as we go forward is with today's ships carrying many times the passenger and crew of the Titanic, should we ever face a tragedy the size and scope of the Titanic or larger we will be prepared? Are we prepared to conduct a massive search and recovery effort? Are we willing to have a truly independent and transparent investigation?" she asked.
West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat, also questioned the industry's long-term commitment to safety, noting that at hearings he's held as chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, he has heard worrying testimony about conditions aboard the vessels.
"Witnesses and experts have highlighted unsafe traveling conditions, major deficiencies in fire detection systems and evacuation procedures, a lack of crew training, miscommunications about what actions should be taken to address safety issues, and the inability of the ship to take care of and efficiently evacuate passengers," Rockefeller said in a statement submitted to the NTSB.
"In response, the cruise lines have provided testimony on a number of safety changes. However, cruise lines have a disappointing history of taking discrete safety steps only after a terrible incident and bad press reports, and they have yet to demonstrate commitment to fostering a long-term, industry-wide safety culture," he added.
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