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No vacation from tragedy

Travel: When terrorists attacked while thousands were enjoying trips, cruise line had to spring into

Posted: September 11, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: September 11, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Princess Cruises executives, from left, Eric Findon, vice president of customer service; Julie Benson, vice president of public relations; and John Sifling, vice president of fleet security, stand in the Princess Cruises Emergency Response Center in Valencia on Friday.

 

Locally, most residents of Santa Clarita slept unaware of the horrific events unfolding in the heart of New York’s financial district Sept. 11, 2001.

Santa Claritans awoke to a seemingly ordinary day, local temperatures were forecast to range in the high 70s on that Tuesday; unseasonably cool for a September day in the valley.

But as people awoke, word of the historic event spread quickly among residents.

Commercial airplanes, piloted by terrorists, had flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center on a mission so twisted that millions of people around the world struggled to grasp the reality of the news or televised images.

 Princess Cruises

Employees of Princess Cruises, however, were setting aside their shock and scrambling into action.

And as the employees mobilized into action, another hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon, while yet another inexplicably, at the time, crashed nose-first into the ground in an empty Pennsylvania field.

At the same time, members of the New York Statewide Incident Notification Group, or NYSING, were monitoring fire and police scanners. At 9:40 a.m. EST, a member sent out an alert to its group: “FAA halts all flight operations at U.S. airports.”

Princess Cruises had passengers on ships around the globe when, for the first time in history, all U.S. commercial air traffic was grounded and airspace closed to all international flights, stranding thousands of passengers around the world.

“There were no flights back to the U.S.,” said Julie Benson, vice president of public relations for Princess Cruises. “And the majority of our passengers were from the U.S.”

The company’s emergency-response plan was activated with employees working to ensure passengers and employees around the world were okay.

“At any given day, we have 40,000 passengers on our ships,” Benson said.

As employees were working to assess the status of all ships and passengers, two more alerts across the country from NYSING went out.

At 10:24 a.m. EST, one alert read “All inbound transatlantic aircraft diverted to Canada,” and at 11:35 a.m. EST, “All Canadian airports are now closed.”

Meanwhile, Princess Cruises was providing information to its ships and ship passengers, keeping them fully informed of all communications from authorities, Benson said.

While most of the cruise itineraries remained unaffected by the man-made disaster, some ships couldn’t pull into a port because air space was shut down, forcing Princess Cruises to divert some of the ships to other ports or destinations.

Stranded in Turkey

“We had one ship, the Golden Princess, just outside Istanbul, Turkey,” Benson said. “We had passengers who couldn’t disembark the ship at the end of their cruise. There were no flights back to the U.S.”

There were also passengers on the dock waiting to board for a new cruise, creating a dilemma for the cruise line. Most international guests could still fly home. But all U.S. guests, waiting to board or debark, were stuck at the port in Istanbul as well.

“We made the decision to keep the ship in Istanbul, and convert it into a floating hotel for people who couldn’t get home,” Benson said.

Princess Cruises’ employees worked fervently and diligently to deliver food and special provisions to passengers on the ship.

The company was particularly sensitive to passengers who were from New York, or who had friends and relatives in the city.

Clearly, 9/11 was a tragedy that everyone was following quite closely, Benson said. So passengers were provided continuous updates as Princess Cruises received them, and cruise-line guests also had access to news channels on the ships so they could follow unfolding events.

“We assisted passengers with family in New York by making our Internet café available to them so they could touch base with their family,” Benson said.

With U.S. air travel shut down for four days, the Princess Cruises Air Department worked around the clock to schedule and re-schedule flights for passengers.

“We worked with our ship board teams to re-book all passengers,” Benson said.

Even as air travel gradually resumed, the company continued working with all cruise-line passengers who had been unable to get to a port to catch their scheduled cruise ships, as well as work with those who cancelled their plans.

“People were very nervous, and that had an initial impact,” Benson said.

New ship

Only slightly more than one week after the attacks, Princess Cruises also made another major decision. The company postponed an inaugural event scheduled to occur in Florida the following month to launch a brand new cruise ship.

Hundreds of guests had been invited, and actress Jane Seymour was set to crack a bottle across the bow, becoming godmother to the ship in the tradition of ship christenings, Benson said.

“We decided we just couldn’t continue on with a party and a celebration,” she said. “It was very inappropriate to have the event.”

Post-9/11

In the aftermath of 9/11, the New York Stock Exchange was shut down, late night talk show hosts Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien and Jon Stewart went off the air for a week or more, and the NFL canceled football games.

When the stock exchange re-opened nearly a week later on Monday, Sept. 17, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed down nearly 700 points and airline stocks plunged 40 percent.

Within a week, however, the U.S. stock markets began to rebound.

“Princess Cruises rebounded rather quickly,” Benson said. “People know if they’re vacationing with us, we’re going to take care of them.”

The company has a strong security program, she said. The company works closely with shore operators. And people wanted to take vacations after recovering from the horror of 9/11. It became more important; they felt the need to be with their family.

“Americans are pretty resilient. It almost became an act of patriotism to continue to travel and not let the attack stop us from travelling,” Benson said.

Travel changes

The amount of information cruise lines had to gather from passengers before they could even board a ship affected Princess Cruises the most post-9/11, Benson said.

The company found itself working with airlines, various homeland security agencies and even border control. Security, before boarding and while on ships, became stronger than ever.

Before departure, Princess Cruises ensures passengers have all the right documents, passports and Visas, as required not only in this country but in other countries as well as a result of 9/11.

Even the on-boarding parties had to be stopped so the company understands who is on ship at all times.

“I started in this business in 1983 and passengers could pretty much just walk on-board with friends and family for Bon Voyage parties before departing,” Benson said.

Emergency mode

Despite the personal feelings of shock and horror in the midst of 9/11, then profound sadness, the Princess Cruises team of employees pulled together to focus on the company’s passengers, Benson said.

Employees ensured that passengers, crew members and ships were safe and taken care of until they could all travel back home.

“It’s part of our corporate culture to serve others, and to ensure their needs are met, especially in the face of adversity,” Benson said. “Our passengers look to Princess to take care of them, and we’re always mindful of this responsibility.”

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