Could Cruise Lines Consider Removing the Virtual Muster Drill?

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Cruising has changed dramatically since sailings restarted after the industry-wide, global pandemic shutdown of 2020-2021. One of passengers’ favorite changes has been the implementation of virtual mustering, rather than the traditional in-person muster drill.

Even though Carnival has no plans to remove the e-muster, could they be removed in the future? I recently sailed on the new Carnival Cruise Line flagship, Mardi Gras, and with hundreds of guests failing to muster in good time – as well as other recent guests reporting similar problems on other cruise lines – it is possible the option may be removed. But why?

Carnival did confirm to Cruise Hive that Carnival has no plans to move away from the e-muster process. No other cruise lines have commented.

Problems With Virtual Mustering

While streamlined and quick, virtual mustering is not without difficulties. Aboard my March 12, 2022, 7-night sailing on Mardi Gras, mustering was underway immediately as guests began to board the ship shortly after 11 a.m.

With my cruise experience, I’m very familiar with traditional mustering, and have also done virtual mustering since the cruise restart, but on a ship with much more limited capacity in November 2021.

Carnival Cruise Line Muster Drill
Carnival Cruise Line Muster Drill (Photo Credit: Kim / Creative Commons)

This Mardi Gras sailing, however, was during the local Spring Break week, and was one of the ship’s first full-capacity sailings with approximately 6,100 passengers on board. Our departure time was scheduled for 4 p.m., but as late as 3:45 p.m., the cruise director – Chris “The Flying Scotsman” Williams – was making announcements that as many as 300 passengers had yet to visit their muster stations.

If passengers did not report to their muster stations right away, they risked being called out by name over the ship’s intercom until they completed their safety drill.

International maritime law requires that cruise ships hold muster drills and demonstrate mustering safety to all passengers before a ship sets sail. With potentially hundreds of passengers failing to visit muster stations prior to a ship’s scheduled departure time, the cruise ship cannot leave port in a timely fashion.

This can result in hefty penalties for the cruise line, particularly in busier ports such as PortMiami and Port Canaveral, two of the busiest cruise ports in the world.

This particular Mardi Gras sailing was departing late on a Saturday afternoon from Port Canaveral, while there were four other cruise ships also departing – Carnival Elation, Disney Fantasy, Norwegian Escape, and Royal Caribbean’s Mariner of the Seas.

Cruise Ship Assembly Station
Photo Credit: Eyesonmilan / Shutterstock

With so many ships needing to depart in short order, it can be tricky if one ship misses its departure time due to non-compliance with safety drills. This can create backlogs for other ships, and may also impact other ship traffic at the port, including private, commercial, and military vessels.

In researching virtual mustering aboard other ships, I found guests reporting similar problems on other ships and with other cruise lines. In some cases, onboard announcements mentioned the possibility of requiring in-person mustering if guests were non-compliant with their self-mustering responsibilities.

What Is Virtual Mustering?

Also called self mustering or “e-muster” safety drills, virtual mustering has been designed as part of health and safety protocols to minimize the risk of disease transmission onboard.

Virtual mustering permits guests to visit their muster stations at different times, reducing crowds, limiting person-to-person contact, simplifying the safety drill, and allowing guests to get to the fun of cruising more quickly on embarkation day.

Depending on the cruise line, virtual mustering may include an online component prior to boarding the ship. Guests may be asked to review an online safety video, complete a brief questionnaire, or read the safety briefing information before boarding.

On embarkation day, guests then visit their assigned muster station – always printed on each individual guest’s ship card and boarding pass, as well as available in cruise ship apps – to confirm they know its location.

At the muster station, their card will be scanned to note that the guest has accurately mustered, and they may need to listen to a brief review of safety procedures or watch a demonstration of how to put on a life jacket before the drill is complete.

This is a much more streamlined process than pre-pandemic muster drills, which involved all passengers assembling at muster stations simultaneously for headcounts, safety information, horn blasts, and life jacket demonstrations. The time to conduct a traditional muster drill could be as long as 30-40 minutes, depending on the size of the ship, the number of passengers, and the location of muster stations.

In contrast, virtual mustering may take as few as just 5 minutes from the time passengers arrive at their muster station to when they are free to explore the ship, visit their stateroom, enjoy lunch, and get their cruise vacation fun underway.

Options to Encourage Virtual Mustering

There are different ways cruise lines could potentially enforce virtual mustering more efficiently. Solutions brainstormed from passengers who have seen the process first-hand could include…

  • Requiring guests to pick up ship cards directly from their muster stations, which prohibits guests from visiting their staterooms prior to mustering and could encourage faster, more efficient mustering.
  • Requiring ship cards – rather than boarding passes – for embarkation day purchases, including alcoholic beverages or making dining, spa, or tour reservations, which would encourage guests to visit muster stations more quickly to pick up cards.
  • Shutting down dining, beverage, and reservation services in the last hour before departure to encourage guests to complete their mustering, and restarting services as soon as all guests have completed the muster station visit.
  • Deactivating ship cards for guests who have failed to muster, including locking guests out of staterooms until they have completed the muster drill.
  • Directing guests to report to their muster stations immediately as they embark, rather than permitting self-mustering anytime in the few hours before departure.
  • Assessing fees or financial penalties to guests who fail to complete their muster drill before a certain time, with higher fees for late mustering.
  • Imposing more direct consequences for failing to complete the muster drill before a deadline, such as revocation of passage and requiring guests to debark without refunds.
  • Rewarding passengers who complete virtual mustering within a quick time frame after embarking, such as adding a free drink or onboard credit to the guest’s account if they complete the drill within 30 minutes of boarding the ship.
Carnival Cruise Ship
Photo Copyright: Cruise Hive

Some cruise lines have already implemented similar policies to improve the efficiency of virtual mustering. It is possible, however, if future cruises continue to be delayed due to non-compliance with self-mustering, cruise lines may consider reverting to the more traditional in-person, everyone-at-once muster drills.

Ultimately, our Mardi Gras cruise did leave Port Canaveral about an hour after our published departure time. While there were several more announcements about guests needing to complete the muster drill, it was not announced whether our late departure was due to the safety drill or other factors.

As more passengers return to cruising in the weeks and months to come, every eager cruiser can hope that virtual mustering continues and becomes even more streamlined, allowing everyone to enjoy every minute of their cruise vacation safely and efficiently.

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