Majestic Maersk at Felixstowe
Majestic Maersk at Felixstowe

Several container lines are still said to be refusing new bookings for containers from North European hub ports to the Middle East and Asia, unless there has been a prior commitment by the carrier.

And as the backhaul capacity crunch tightens, freight rates have soared as high as $2,500 for 40ft containers selected for loading – with prices for normally low-rated waste paper and plastic even higher.

Some carriers have even said they would impose a mid-month peak season surcharge (PSS) on the route, which is almost unprecedented for backhaul voyages during March.

One big-volume UK shipper today described the rates proposed for April as “crazily high”, but believed the carriers “would see sense in the coming weeks”.

Apart from Maersk Line and Hapag-Lloyd, there have been no official acknowledgements from carriers of the backhaul capacity crisis, thought to have stemmed from an aggressive blanking of headhaul sailings during and after the Chinese New Year holidays at the end of February.

According to one carrier source, the cancelled westbound calls also resulted in a temporary shortage of equipment at some depots.

The acute space shortage between North Europe and Asia was first highlighted by The Loadstar last week after a response to an enquiry to Maersk Line brought confirmation that the carrier was experiencing “challenges with space availability”.

Maersk said “exceptionally high demand” had caused “potential issues with the acceptance of bookings to our customers”.

But 24 hours later, Maersk e-mailed The Loadstar to advise it had been reviewing its “options to minimise the backlog with the least possible impact on the business of our customers”.

Apparently as a consequence of this review, Maersk said it was “now happy that customers can book with us” – a change of policy rumoured to be due to the introduction of one or more ad-hoc sailings by the 2M alliance.

Interestingly, during this period, Maersk’s 2M partner, MSC, was reported to be continuing to accept export bookings.

Nevertheless, one shipper told The Loadstar he had had containers sitting on the quay at Felixstowe for several weeks. He said: “They just keep rolling them to the next voyage, and we still do not know when and how many boxes will be shipped and on what vessel.”

Any shut-out of export containers at Felixstowe is also complicated by the forthcoming alliance reshuffle, which will see Yang Ming and K Line move their container operations to Southampton and London Gateway from 1 April as part of THE Alliance.

Nonetheless, one major UK exporter told The Loadstar last week it did not know officially which port THE Alliance carriers would be using.

Furthermore, there are potential operational disruptions likely to have an impact on shippers from the phasing in and out of vessels from the current G6, Ocean 3 and CKYE alliances into the new Ocean and THE alliances.

One forwarder told The Loadstar last week: “I’d imagine a lot of carriers are repositioning vessels for the alliances. They are not running to their schedules.”

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