Milias: The ship of fools, SS Aspen

Elizabeth Milias
The Red Ant
Elizabeth Milias
Courtesy photo

Royal Caribbean’s Wonder of the Seas, the world’s largest cruise ship at 1,188 feet, has a maximum capacity of 6,988 guests and 2,300 crew members. The mega-ship has 18 decks and offers eight distinct “neighborhoods,” including a central park with 20,000 plants and trees. Aboard the ship are 40 restaurants and bars offering diverse fare from homespun southern classics to rustic Italian favorites.

In addition to the tallest water slide at sea, guests can enjoy a children’s playground, 1,400-seat theater, a full-sized basketball court, ice skating rink, surf simulator and zip line 10 decks high.

The ship’s advanced wastewater purification system treats 570,000 gallons per day, complemented by a reverse osmosis desalination plant, glass crushers, a cardboard baller, aluminum can compactor and food waste pulper.

This reads like a travel brochure, but it also sounds a lot like the SS Aspen.

Docked at the eastern end of the Pitkin County pier, our mega-ship is home to 7,700 permanent passengers who have chosen a unique albeit expensive lifestyle of adventure, eschewing life on terra firma to live where others only aspire to visit.

This number is deceptive, however, because it does not reflect the ship’s capacity, which is far greater yet mysteriously unspecified; 7,700 represents the full-time passengers (who reside on the various decks) and includes an unknown number of crew members, who earn wages and receive room and board in exchange for working hospitality and service jobs aboard the ship.

Further conflating the 7,700 number is a distinct class of “aspirational” passengers who have figured out how to “work” while onboard when not cavorting with the other passengers who are heavily taxed to provide them cabins on a subsidized basis.

Their work is legitimate; they’re not on vacation on this pricey ship. But although they appear busy and generate income to cover their onboard expenses, many are in no way essential to the ship’s operations. They’re neither sweating in the engine room nor working the line in the kitchen. Unlike the crew, they’re regularly found poolside and in the casino in their off hours. They’re along for the ride at a deep discount, the unintended consequence of decisions made in a bygone era.

In this post-pandemic period of rough seas, however, the SS Aspen’s fragile onboard dynamic has shifted and a malaise is growing, threatening the delicate balance between the ship’s physical capacity, its ability to charge its paying passengers unprecedented prices for attractive onboard offerings and amenities, and the ship’s crew’s ability to deliver them.

The ship’s officers say it’s because they’re understaffed and can’t hire sufficient crew, attributing this to a shortage of crew cabins and speculating that these are being converted and sold to paying passengers and perhaps even allocated to the aspirational folks who covet the good life onboard.

Paying passengers, permanent and visiting alike, are boarding in record numbers, paying a tidy sum to do so, and are more demanding than ever. Every deck is full, even on the most expensive upper deck, which is now the first to fill. No surprise, word is out and the wait is long for aspirational passengers who look on from shore and clamor to come aboard for a life of smooth sailing.

The aspiring passengers already aboard are the lucky ones, blending in seamlessly with the others and demanding the same high-end benefits and services: fluffy towels, frozen daquiris, Broadway shows and bottomless champagne, and further contributing to the overwhelming pressure on the already understaffed and overworked crew, among which morale is at an all-time low.

Before the SS Aspen hits the figurative iceberg, it’s time to turn this thing on a dime.

  • It’s a ship with finite space. We can’t build our way out of the problem. Time to rearrange the deck chairs.
  • The ship has a maximum capacity. We need to know it for lifeboats anyway.
  • There’s an ideal ratio of passengers to crew; it’s not arbitrary. Re-allocate the cabins accordingly.
  • The ship’s manifest is deliberately incomplete due to the willful ignorance of the ship’s officers. Take a headcount, even though some crew members don’t show up for their shifts anymore.
  • Prioritize the ship’s essential operations and the crew needed for such. These critical crew members should be given first dibs on crew cabins.
  • Identify the non-essentials: the non-performing crew and aspiring passengers. It’s time to phase out the outlandish benefits of a forever life onboard on a moving-forward basis. (Don’t worry, no one will be thrown overboard. But no one new will be allowed to come aboard simply because they want to cruise or be allowed to stay on because they once worked here.) Times have changed. Besides, it’s the only way to stay afloat.

Sadly, it falls to the ship’s officers, former crew members and aspirational passengers themselves to save the ship. Their judgment is often clouded by the fact they’ve never worked anywhere else and are most troubled by making decisions that might hurt the feelings of non-essential passengers.

It’s clearly time for new, more professional leadership. With political will and some tough choices, the ship can still right itself.

Welcome aboard.

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