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Federal maritime officials to weigh cruise ship refund rules

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Carnival Sunshine (copy)

Passengers leave the Carnival Sunshine after it arrived in Charleston on March 16, 2020, following its final voyage before cruises were halted due to COVID-19. The Federal Maritime Commission is proposing new rules that would help passengers get refunds for canceled cruises. Brad Nettles/Staff/File

Cruise ship passengers who find their voyages canceled because of COVID-19 or other reasons might have an easier time getting refunds under a proposal by the Federal Maritime Commission.

The action comes months after North American cruises, including those at the Port of Charleston, were halted due to coronavirus concerns. Cruise operators, including Carnival Cruise Line, have said they plan to resume voyages in October. That would include sailings on the Carnival Sunshine, which is based at Union Pier in downtown Charleston.

The maritime commission hopes to have new rules in place by then to address hundreds of consumer complaints federal agencies received since cruises were canceled.

The suggested changes include requiring pleasure ship operators lines to refund payments within 60 days, and in the same form as the payment was made, if the cancellation is due to anything other than a government order. Cruise lines would have up to 180 days to refund payments if a cruise is canceled due to government intervention. Those deadlines would also count when passenger boarding is delayed by at least 24 hours.

To date, there has not be a uniform standard for refund practices and consumers have complained about confusing — and often changing — refund policies and lengthy wait times to get their money back after the Centers for Disease Control issued a no-sail order on March 14.

Louis E. Sola, head of the commission, recently conducted a review of various cruise line policies and "discovered some places where we, as a regulator, could improve our ability to protect" consumers.

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The proposed rules will be submitted to the full commission, which is expected to vote on them next month.

In addition to the refund timelines, cruise lines would have to give passengers up to six months to choose between a cruise credit or a refund if their voyage is canceled. 

"A clear and consistent policy toward ticket refunds as well as the financial responsibility requirements will eliminate uncertainty on the part of the consumer and will provide clear terms upon which industry may plan for future operations," Sola said in a 13-page report outlining his findings.

The report is welcome news to some consumer advocates, who say more needs to be done to protect passengers when trips are canceled. 

"Cruise lines generally are a dramatically under-regulated industry," Michael Winkleman, a Miami-based maritime attorney, told USA Today. "Any step toward greater regulation is a real positive for the cruising public."

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_

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