Managing the unexpected: strategic fleet planning

Emilio La Scala shares how he prepares MSC Cruises for unforeseen operational events

Managing the unexpected: strategic fleet planning
MSC Grandiosa was the first cruise ship to return to international waters on 16 August 2021 after the pandemic forced the industry to pause operations worldwide in early 2020

By Susan Parker |

Operational unknowns can happen out of the blue at any time of the day or night onboard a cruise ship. Consequently, the fundamental task of a fleet manager is to ensure that they have a complete, holistic view of a cruise line’s entire operation on a day-to-day basis. It is also imperative for them to implement a strategic plan to operate efficiently – both from a manpower and cost management perspective – to make certain they have the capacity to effectively deal with any eventuality whenever it arises. 

In 2020, fleet managers were challenged by the Covid-19 pandemic, which gave rise to a unique set of circumstances. “As the pandemic brought the cruise industry to a halt in early 2020, it was critical for MSC Cruises to return its guests home safely from the ships around the world before we could move on to the crew repatriation phase,” says Emilio La Scala, president and managing director of MSC Cruise Management (UK).

“Thereafter, the question was where can we lay up the entire fleet and how can we ensure the right crew levels to cover all aspects of safety? Thankfully, our parent company MSC Group helped us to secure berths, primarily in Italian ports alongside cargo piers. We also had great support from the Italian maritime authority, Guardia Costiera.”

All 19 ships in the fleet are now back at sea with guests onboard, a feat that La Scala credits to the “incredible commitment and determination of so many different parts of the industry, all of which are hugely important stakeholders in our day-to-day role”. 

Being back at sea highlighted to La Scala that the fundamentals of fleet management have not changed. “We still look at weather patterns three to four days in advance for every ship in the fleet, weigh up and rate any potential disruption, plan for alternate port calls, and work in partnership with regulatory bodies, stevedoring companies, and more,” he explains. 

The pandemic has introduced additional tasks, however. When MSC Cruises’ MSC Grandiosa became the first vessel from any major cruise line to return to international waters in August 2020, La Scala had to ensure that MSC Cruises had a robust Covid-19 testing system in place for guests and crew. Once vaccines became available in 2021, the company turned its attention to vaccinating the crew, which was a “huge but necessary precautionary undertaking for everyone’s well-being”, according to La Scala.

Planning post-pandemic itineraries has also involved a lot of extra work. “New itineraries and ports of call mean that we’ve undertaken a range of preparatory work to make sure that everyone’s efforts are aligned so we can provide a great, memorable and safe holiday at sea for all of our guests,” says La Scala.

For example, MSC Cruises’ sailings from Venice, Italy, had to be totally readjusted for the summer and autumn 2022 season. Ships are now using the ports of Marghera, Trieste and Monfalcone. Some capacity from the Baltic Sea also had to be moved to the Norwegian fjords at very short notice. “The switch to Norway was a challenge because we had two of our largest vessels, MSC Grandiosa and MSC Virtuosa, operating in the country and visiting ports that they hadn’t called at previously,” says La Scala.

While it may be a challenge to find new ports of call, it is a welcome one. “Our team is also responsible for MSC Group’s luxury brand, Explora Journeys, and in its first year of operation starting in May 2023, it will sail to 60 ports that MSC Cruises has never called at before,” says La Scala. “Naturally, these are smaller ports than the ones that MSC Cruises visits and a great deal of work has to be undertaken in advance to make it possible. We’ve conducted technical feasibility studies and examined tidal patterns, anchorage points and shoreside facilities for guests.” 

Another challenge is to build a reliable pool of skilled deck and engine officers, given that the pandemic had a dramatic impact on the industry and staffing levels. “Thankfully, MSC Cruises didn’t send one vessel to the scrapyard, or pause our newbuilds programme, so we’ve benefited by attracting people trained up to a captain level from other lines that were adversely affected by the temporary halt in sailing,” says La Scala.  

Energy efficiency is of growing importance too, and there is much more work being done on every ship in the MSC Cruises fleet. “The requirement to meet the International Maritime Organization’s proposed Carbon Intensity Index means that we will need to track the current performance levels of all our ships and take their carbon intensity rating into consideration when planning itineraries,” says La Scala. “In this way, we can identify what plans, if any, need to be put in place before the requirements enter force in 2023.” 

Last but not least, La Scala commented: “Above all else, of course, safety is always at the front and centre of everything we do. It never is, and never will be, compromised.” 

This article was first published in the 2022 Autumn/Winter issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.   

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