As 2024 gets under way, container shipping is experiencing the most disruption the industry has seen since the height of the pandemic.
Over the past few months, vessel transits at the Panama Canal, a major gateway between Asia and U.S. East and Gulf Coast ports, have been limited because of a low-water issue that is expected to be a long-term problem. Since mid-December, terror attacks impacting commercial vessels transiting the Red Sea have forced ocean carriers to reroute vessels from the Suez Canal, the other major gateway between Asia and U.S. East and Gulf Coast ports, to long transits around Africa. Accessing certain ports in the Middle East and Northeast Africa by container vessel is difficult because of service changes.
Carriers have been adjusting routings and announcing last-minute changes to services as risks are constantly reevaluated. Booking ocean freight between the U.S. East and Gulf Coast and Asia ports is as complex as it’s ever been; the services sailing through the Panama Canal are the most reliable but limited and subject to delays, while services that typically use the Suez Canal are all over the board. Shippers could book a carrier and vessel that plans to sail through the Suez despite the risks and later announce a shift in strategy and longer transit around Africa, for example.
The carrier alliances and slot-sharing agreements make planning even more complicated; there’s no guarantee the cargo will ultimately sail on a vessel operated by the specific carrier that it was booked with.
These routing delays are coinciding with healthy import volumes and an expected uptick in bookings ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday in Asia, which begins Feb. 10. Longer transits translate to an effective reduction of capacity in the market, so space is tight, and rates are climbing. Carriers implemented spot rate increases mid-December and Jan. 1, and more are expected as long as the challenges persist.
Many shippers will begin annual ocean freight contract negotiations soon, and the market challenges are likely to impact contract rate levels and service options for the coming year.
The disruptions may also affect equipment availability on a global scale and could lead to congestion at some gateways. Shippers in need of more reliable transits between the U.S. East and Midwest and Asia may use West Coast port routings to avoid delays. An increase in volumes moving through the West Coast would put pressure on the terminal and rail infrastructure and could result in delays.
Trades not directly impacted by the Panama and Suez issues are likely to see some knock-on effects. On the Transatlantic Trade, for example, which is relatively weak, capacity could be shifted to stronger trades like Asia-Europe or Asia-U.S. Equipment availability in Europe may become even more difficult, especially at inland depots, with inbound containers from Asia taking longer to arrive.
Longer term, on the domestic side, there are indications that the upcoming labor contract negotiation for East and Gulf Coast ports may be contentious. The contract expires in September; depending on the development of the discussions, shippers may opt to shift volumes to West Coast ports to avoid potential labor disruption on the other coasts.
As always, we recommend forecasting and booking as early as possible. Shippers using U.S. East and Gulf Coast gateways should prepare for delays of two or more weeks, depending on the routing. For urgent cargo, consider air freight or an expedited ocean freight option via a West Coast port.
Rachel Shames is vice president, pricing and procurement at transportation and logistics services firm CV International.