Who ultimately watches over your safety on a cruise ship?  As the world witnessed watching the Costa Concordia disaster…don’t necessarily count on the crew or the ship owners!  Turns out that the entire industry operates without much regulation…and as in many industries, if no one makes you do something…you don’t.

That very fact appears in this case with the ship’s detained captain, Francesco Schettino, who deviated from a fixed, computerized course to show off his beautiful $450 million boat, carrying more than 4,200 passengers and crew members, to the people of Giglio Island on a still Friday night.  This action apparently resulted in the ship crashing onto a submerged rock.  Amazing!

What this entire disaster raises in many peoples minds is how the cruise industry is supervised and controlled.  Those issues included how much safety information and training are required for the crew and passengers, and how much discretion a captain has to alter routes, especially in an age when electronic radar, charts, GPS and other guidance systems are supposed to keep these large, sleek ships on course.

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More than 72 hours after the accident killed at least six people, confusion still reigned over how many were missing. Italy’s coast guard abruptly raised the total to 29 late Monday after having said 16, including 2 Americans, remained unaccounted for. Worries also grew that the ship’s half-million gallons of fuel could leak into a marine wildlife sanctuary.

While airline pilots are directed and guided by controllers on the ground, sea captains are considered to be in complete control. Rather, at most cruise lines, company directors determine the routes, which are then transmitted to the captain and a navigating officer, who scrutinize the charted course but are meant to follow it.  The captain, who may face criminal charges of manslaughter, failure to offer assistance and abandonment of the ship, had said he struck an uncharted rock.

For many years, the global cruise line industry has operated under a loosely defined system that tends to escape scrutiny by courts and regulators. Cruise line instances of crime, pollution and safety and health violations have often gone unpoliced because no single authority is in charge.

A United Nations agency, the International Maritime Organization, oversees maritime safety through international conventions, including one for the Safety of Life at Sea, known as Solas, adopted in 1914, which grew out of the global anger that stemmed from the loss of the Titanic in 1912. But the agency has no policing powers.

Ships themselves are certified and inspected by independent classification societies, like Lloyd’s Register Group and the Italian RINA S.p.A. These groups perform annual checks of ship safety conditions, lifeboats and other safety equipment. They approve vital components like fire protection, navigation, radio communication equipment, deck gear, cables and anchors.

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Passengers described delays and confusion, with unclear instructions and inexperienced crewmembers. Guests described the scene, as “it was every man for himself.” Cruise passengers are supposed to attend a safety briefing within 24 hours of boarding however many guests described the briefing on the Costa Concordia as a sales pitch for cruise excursions.

The company estimated the financial impact of the disaster to be as much as $95 million, with the ship out of service for the rest of 2012. But the impact is bound to be much more. Many wary public will think twice about selecting a cruise as a vacation option given the images of the tilted ship and the dead passengers.

In the meantime, the shares of the ship’s parent company — Carnival Corporation of Miami, the world’s biggest cruise line operator — slid by nearly a fifth and the owners and insurers are trying to add up the cost of the disaster.

Planning a cruise this summer?  Pay attention to all safety instructions, think about your strategy in case of disaster and be aware of your surroundings at all times.  You life may be literally in your hands.