Sunken Dreams: Family hurt by century old law

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 14, 2006

Robert and Joan Miller could practically see themselves in a postcard. The snow-capped Alaskan mountains would serve as the perfect backdrop for their 56th wedding anniversary.

Little did the Ironton couple know that eventually a 120-year-old law would basically sink the fun they hoped for on a seven-day cruise and cost the family more than $1,200 dollars.

“It is one of the worst things I have ever gone through and it is not over yet,” Joan said of the hardship this caused for her and her husband who are both in their 70s. “… I can’t let it go. I never had a parking ticket and now I am told we broke a law.”

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Long before the unhappy ending, the Millers’ story had a perfect beginning. Joan and Robert planned to spend seven days aboard a cruise ship with their two sons, daughter-in-law and granddaughter. A delayed flight, lack of any real explanation and an honest attempt to board the departed ship ruined the trip.

“We figured this would probably be our last big trip, last big cruise,” she said. “Our sons had given this to us for our 50th wedding anniversary but because of illnesses, between he and I, we have never been able to go. I thought this was the year.”

So, what went so wrong? Well, it is a long story that spans more than 3,000 miles and includes lots of frustration for the Millers.

The family was all set to fly out of Charleston, W.Va., to Seattle when they were told there would be a slight delay. Slight turned into long, which eventually lead to more than 24 hours sitting in the airport. Finally, the Millers were told the flight was canceled. By now, their cruise ship had long since set sail — as did their hopes for a perfect vacation.

“We were never told why. First they said the crew didn’t show, then that the plane didn’t come in,” Joan said. “Then I asked again, and they said ‘well it could have been the weather,’ which gets them off the hook. We never did get a definite answer.”

Plan B

With their options sinking faster than the Titanic, the Millers decided they could book a flight to Juneau, Alaska, and catch up with the cruise ship at its first port.

The vacation finally got off the ground and the Millers and their son and granddaughter made it to Alaska where they awaited the ship’s arrival, all the while shelling out more money for lodging and meals.

Since the Millers’ other relatives were already onboard, the family knew when their ship had finally come in. They thought everything would be smooth sailing after that but found out that was not the case.

When the family tried to register for the cruise, they were essentially told that they had broken a law under the Jones Act of 2004. Specifically, they were affected by the Passenger Services Act, a piece of United States legislation that was created in 1886, and would owe $300 per person.

The law states that, “No foreign vessels shall transport passengers between ports or places in the United States, either directly or by way of a foreign port, under a penalty of $300 for each passenger so transported and landed.”

By now, the Millers were fed up but learned that there was little they could do since it was U.S. law, not the cruise ship, that imposed the fine.

“I think that this is wrong. The lady said, “You can fight it if you want but you would be fighting the government so I don’t think you are going to win,” Joan recounted. “It ruined our vacation.”

Seeking port in a storm

For Steve Call, Travel and Tourism director at Ohio University Southern, flight delays that wreck travel plans are a problem that he sees far too often. The Jones Act application is not something he sees much but something he said should go away.

“When sea travel was the norm for passenger travel, the act was probably justified, as I believe it was intended to protect American passenger cruises,” he said. “With the rise of the aviation industry, the U.S. passenger cruise ship industry has all but ceased to exist with most major cruise lines being foreign flagged. Most U.S. flagged cruise companies are small niche lines that ply the domestic waterways and do not call on foreign ports.”

Should the law be nixed?

“Yes, as I believe it limits the cruise itineraries of the American citizens that it was intended to protect,” Call said. “And it causes needless and senseless extra expenses for travelers.”

Now, the Millers are without answers and not sure where to turn. Losing two days of the their vacation and adding those days in expenses was bad enough before the $1,200 fee. They have asked elected officials, the cruise line and the airline for help, but have yet to see any response.

“The Millers have contacted the right people and I would also suggest contacting the company that sold them the cruise (travel agency), the American Society of Travel Agents, the Better Business Bureau and the Attorney General of Washington and Alaska.”

What can you do?

As far as Call is concerned, going to your destination the day before a cruise is always a good idea.

“It allows for any travel irregularities and I arrive at the ship less stressed out. I’ve found that the extra fees for a hotel room are worth it. Plus, you can do some additional sight seeing at the destination.”

Purchasing trip interruption insurance is another good bet against flight delays.

“The coverage amounts vary but the travelers can be reimbursed for legitimate trip delay expenses,” Call said.

But for the Millers, this will be one vacation and anniversary that brings back anything but fond memories.