What are we learning (or not) from the restart of cruises in USA?

Cruising has restarted throughout the United States with more and more ships and more and more ports continuing to reopen and striving to resume business. We can now begin to have a glimpse of some of the issues and opportunities presented, as well as have a chance to draw conclusions that might be useful to us all. Here is what we are hearing.

At recent meetings, many ports reported with excitement that cruising has started and that the number of calls are increasing at a rapid pace – not much on how the restart is going on the ground.  Cruise lines are reporting similar satisfaction with the restart with most indicating that they are having higher occupancies although the vast majority continue operating with less than half capacity. Like ports, how the operations are evolving are hard to measure, as cruise lines have been fluctuating their protocols to react to the pandemic and the efficiency of processing passengers. Lines that started with one set of protocols are all quickly mimicking each other (and CDC recommendations) and adopting testing procedures for all passengers as well as crew members, in addition to vaccinations.

The latest CDC guidance, which most cruise lines sailing in US waters are now complying with, recommends that vaccinated passengers get a COVID test within two days of boarding a ship or get tested on the day of embarkation.

What we know about how this is operating in real-time.

  • Most of the customers are predominantly adults; introducing large amounts of unvaccinated children, which is a core customer of the lines is bound to create another set of issues from today.
  • Low occupancy is what allows some of the operations.  Current models would be hard press to work at full occupancies.
  • Staffing levels in all positions are an issue like in many other businesses.
  • By enlarge, cruise lines are controlling the protocols, not the ports.
  • Operations are fluctuating from week to week and line to line, creating issues with the layout of spaces and processes
  • The vast majority of ports are using the terminals as previously designed, and trying to incorporate testing, vaccination checks as well as other types of inspections in the best way they can fit it within the terminal.
  • In ports with multiple terminals, they have recognized the issues, and are only using the larger terminals for the restart,
  • Some cruise lines have not been successful in scheduling customer arrivals to a port at a particular time block that would allow a process to flow correctly.

The result is that there are reports of customers having long waits, with customers being queued up outside of a terminal experiencing long lines. So, what is going to give as occupancies ramp up, and unvaccinated children are introduced?


Passengers wait to board Carnival Mardi Gras at Terminal 3 at Port Canaveral. (photo via Eric Bowman / Travel Pulse)

The long-term solution.

Although the described issues would be considered normal when such dramatic changes take place, there doesn’t seem to be much change in the physical environment associated with trying to solve the logistics problem of processing large numbers of people.

Currently, most cruise lines are reporting solid bookings with planned increases in occupancy throughout the rest of the Fall and Winter seasons. Therefore, it is easy to predict countless hold-ups occurring at the ports given the forecasts.

At the root of this, many continue to treat the pandemic as a temporary situation and believe it will go away in a matter of months, and therefore they can simply adapt temporary processes to support their current operations until it has all passed and operations go back to “normal”. Although we can all hope for the best, the reality is that we have to plan for the worst, which might mean we all live with it, and adapt our businesses accordingly.

Many are realizing that COVID will be with us for quite some time and possibly for many years to come. Therefore, the operations need to be adjusted to create a system of cruise boarding, operation, and disembarking that adapts to this reality; permanent changes will be needed, not just shuffling the chairs on the deck.

Passengers wait to board Serenade of the Seas at Terminal 91 in Seattle. (photo via Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

A few progressive ports during the pandemic shutdown took the time to look at simulations for full testing and protocols and reached some dramatic differences in the allocation of spaces and sequence. Here is what we generally learned from these studies:

  • The smaller and more compact the terminal, the more difficulties one will have, and in some cases, the terminals might not be able to operate at all.
  • Timing of passenger arrival to the check-in to a prescribed time is essential.
  • Hands-free and touchless systems need to be incorporated at all steps.
  • The sequence of testing and checking, vs security, check-in, and boarding needs to be reshuffled and will be controlled predominately by the waiting spaces needed for any testing results.
  • New systems like facial recognition need to adapt to the face mask reality.

Lessons learned.

The general conclusion is that most terminals with sufficient space can be adapted to a new process, but it will require capital improvements.

The good news is that all of the simulations showed that it can work, but sequence and process need to be changed and space allocations will be different.  It will require that ports and their customers change the mindset from short-term to long-term.

We can also begin to learn from each other and create a standard that most ports and cruise lines can agree on instead of allowing things to develop over time in an individualized way, which will be problematic for many ports with multiple customers.

The result will be to integrate all processes in the most efficient and economical system.

How BA can help.

BA can assist ports, cruise lines, and terminal operators through the use of its unique simulator that analyzes facility design and operation scenarios. The simulation provides visual and analytical statistics to assess bottlenecks in the process and address them through the development of numerous scenarios. Today, BA is using the simulator to evaluate the health and safety protocols spurred by the pandemic, to help optimize passenger flows and terminal capacity. Read more about BA’s simulator here.

BA is well-positioned to assist with any of your cruise resumption needs, so please do not hesitate to reach out simply by replying to this email, or contacting Luis Ajamil (LAjamil@bermelloajamil.com) or Mark Ittel (mittel@bermelloajamil.com).

We look forward to hearing from you.