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Global News Global disruption further complicates ocean carrier network building

Registration dateJUL 05, 2024

Jeremy Masters, Managing Director, Shipping MastersJun 20, 2024, 1:35 PM EDT
Articles reproduced by permission of Journal of Commerce.

Jeremy Masters, Managing Director, Shipping Masters
Jun 20, 2024, 1:35 PM EDT
Articles reproduced by permission of Journal of Commerce.

Global disruption further complicates ocean carrier network building Container lines have injected additional ships into the Asia-Europe trade to account for the longer routings around Africa, making their services and networks more flexible by design. Photo credit: GreenOak / Shutterstock.com.
Ocean carriers face some interesting choices as alliance allegiances shift and unexpected challenges, such as diversions away from the Suez Canal, alter their ship operating systems.

Of course, attention is automatically paid to which ports are directly served and the key benchmarks of frequency and transit time.

There is, however, a bigger question hanging over both the original and the currently redesigned deployments: How do you build a robust, resilient system in the face of operational and geopolitical disruptions that throw conventional container shipping networks into disarray?

Asia-Europe carriers, for instance, are grappling not only with significantly lengthened transit times but also a degradation in schedule reliability caused by port congestion at both ends of the trade.

We may be going through a particularly difficult period in world history; over the last four years, the industry has faced pandemic-driven shipping disruptions, wars in Europe and the Middle East, attacks on shipping in the Red Sea, and drought-related draft and transit restrictions at the Panama Canal.

The Red Sea crisis has shown that one way to partially circumvent a major disruption is to throw more ships into the pot, which makes both individual services and the larger carrier networks nimbler and more flexible.

This is not necessarily a recipe for overall success, however. It’s not easy to procure ships in a hurry, and the price of doing so in the charter market rises rapidly as demand increases. There are also negative knock-on effects to other trades; as ships and equipment are sucked away to help fill holes in disrupted lanes, reliability suffers in less prioritized trades.

And irrespective of the success of chartering more ships or pulling them from other trades, the collective effect of multiple redeployments and schedules being off berthing window is congestion, which creates the kind of downward spiral in schedule reliability and effective net capacity we see currently in the Asia-Europe trade. No easy solutions Likewise, maintaining a “buffer” of excess ships ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice is a luxury most carriers cannot afford, unless they get creative and combine it with a parallel business model in which they buy ships when the second-hand purchase market is depressed, operate them opportunistically — or charter them out — and sell them at the top of the market, assuming they no longer need them.

Having berthing preference arrangements at key ports even when off window is helpful whatever the conditions. Having access to strategically located transshipment hubs that can feed cargo into areas that are no longer readily accessible or to areas that are congested is particularly helpful because it means fewer mainline ships will be diverted or sucked into congested areas.

To be fair to the carriers, there is no easy solution to such significant disruptions.

The new Gemini Alliance of Maersk and Hapag-Lloyd has put significant emphasis on schedule reliability, but current conditions have added some new dynamics to deployment decisions. The dozen hubs that are mostly owned or controlled by one of the two partners with berthing preference remain dependent a lot of other important ports to make their system work, and the jury is out on how dependable the spoke part of their “hub-and-spoke” operation will be.

Mediterranean Shipping Co., which has not historically been strongly committed as a solo operator to rigid schedule integrity but in recent years has made significant improvements, may be better positioned to create robust solutions in all trades at short notice when it begins operating outside of an alliance next year. MSC will only be selectively encumbered by partners, and their fleet has grown exponentially — albeit facing the need to fill a large number of vessel slots that Maersk will be vacating.

The OCEAN Alliance, as the largest vessel sharing agreement, has the most overall capacity to play with when problems arise, but having strong partners means conflicting priorities in what loops and ports get the capacity when things get tough.

THE Alliance’s new configurations — assuming Ocean Network Express (ONE), Yang Ming and HMM stay together — are eagerly awaited. THE partners cannot be all things to all shippers, but if they are nimble and design systems that play to their strengths, they can be as reliable as the larger alliances in specific port pairs.

Niche carriers such as Zim Integrated Shipping Services and Wan Hai Lines that are very focused on particular lanes and particular ports have the opportunity to be as reliable in what they do as those that have more tools at their disposal.

That said, shippers probably shouldn’t buy into carriers’ commitments to schedule reliability in an uncertain world, even if some will try harder than others to deliver.

For beneficial cargo owners and non-vessel-operating common carriers that have a large amount of cargo to ship regularly, it makes sense to spread risk over more than one alliance and independent carrier. The reality is that neither the carriers nor their clients know what the next crisis will be, let alone how effective each carriers’ fixes might be.
· Contact Jeremy Masters at jeremy@shippingmastershk.com.