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Logistics
Chronic container shortage in Asia takes its toll on premium services
Date:2020-11-23 Readers:
FREIGHT forwarders have complained that container shortages at Asian ports are so severe that carriers with premium trans-Pacific services are sometimes unable to guarantee customers equipment will be available at the Asian load ports they serve.

The box shortages are so acute, particularly at the Chinese ports of Xiamen, Ningbo, and Shanghai, that some vessels are leaving Asia without full loads because there is not enough equipment to be found, non-vessel-operating common carriers (NVOs) said. US imports from China moving through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have been exceptionally strong since late June when the economy began to reopen from initial Covid-19 lockdowns.

"There are literally not enough containers to fill their vessels," said Jon Monroe, who serves as a consultant to NVOs.

Several carriers, including APL/CMA CGM, Matson Navigation Co, Zim Integrated Shipping Services, and more recently Maersk Line, have been offering premium services during the surge in volumes, which guarantee customers equipment and priority loading at Asian ports, shorter transit times, and priority discharge at the US port for premium freight rates. According to NVOs, premium services charge well above US$4,000 per FEU to the West Coast, compared to the average spot rate of $3,849 per FEU listed on the Shanghai Containerized Freight Index.

But the inability of carriers to guarantee equipment negates the purpose of the premium service, IHS Media reported.

Alan Baer, president of the forwarder TTS Worldwide, likened the current booking process to a series of hurdles NVOs or retailers have to face as the container shortages in Asia continue unabated. First, there is a "six-foot barrier" in securing a booking. Once the booking is made, the customer has to jump a "four-foot hurdle" to get a container for the shipment. If the booking is made and the container is secured, there's a final "two-foot barrier" to get the container loaded onto the ship, Mr Baer said.

Since the surge in US imports from Asia began in late June, Mr Monroe has been urging shippers to book two or three weeks in advance, but says shippers are still getting shut out regularly. Some have tried to book space on premium services four to five weeks in advance, but carriers won't let them book that far ahead, he said.

A spokesperson for a carrier with a premium service, who asked not to be identified, said carriers have tried everything at their disposal to return empty containers from the US to Asia. Those measures include reducing free storage time at warehouses in the US, denying export bookings to quickly turn the containers and get the empties back to Asia, and repositioning empty containers to Asia from other trade lanes.

"All options are exhausted," the spokesperson said.

The trans-Pacific premium services, which are concentrated in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, are most popular for shippers of high-value, time-sensitive goods such as personal protective equipment (PPE), medical supplies and equipment, and e-commerce fulfilment. Some shippers who require expedited service have shifted from air freight to premium ocean services because airlines have cancelled a large number of passenger services from Asia to North America during the Covid-19 pandemic, eliminating much-needed aircraft belly space for freight.

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