MSC London

Weeks after receiving clearance from the US Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) on its east-west trades 2M vessel sharing agreement (VSA) with Maersk Line, MSC has announced that it will also independently provide direct services between North Europe and the US east coast ports of Boston and Philadelphia.

Many shippers have complained that they were not consulted in the scheduling decision process of the 2M, being handed a fait accompli of service frequency and port calls, Now they say the move by MSC will give them renewed confidence in the power of cargo to dictate routings.

The announcement from MSC is a significant statement that it is not prepared to lose substantial chunks of business by being hobbled by the constraints of the 2M schedule.

In order to finalise the 2M submissions to competition regulators, scheduling compromises would have been necessary by both Maersk and MSC, with specific marketing requirements taking second place.

But reading between the lines of the MSC announcement, it would seem that the feedback from the 2M schedule in the US meant it could not afford to drop direct weekly calls at Boston and Philadelphia.

“While the 2M vessel sharing agreement will deliver outstanding operational benefits for MSC clients, the proposed schedule did not include direct services to Boston or Philadelphia. These updated routes will ensure MSC offers complete coverage of North American ports, seamless continuity of service and faster transit times,” said the line.

“MSC considers it strategically important to maintain services into Boston and Philadelphia; to do so while delivering improved transit times from North Europe is a double success,” the company stated.

Indeed, this would seem a win-win for MSC which now has the advantage on the North Atlantic trade of the best of the 2M schedules and a share of Maersk’s patch – including an 11-day transit from Antwerp to New York – as well as a bespoke weekly service from North Europe to Boston and Philadelphia.

How this decision by MSC will be viewed at Maersk HQ in Copenhagen remains to be seen; it is the first test of the resolve of the 2M VSA before it has even begun operationally and seems at first glance contrary to the spirit of the alliance. It will be interesting to see whether Maersk responds in kind – at its capital markets day in September, chief executive Soren Skou noted the transatlantic arena as one where the 2M would be an improvement on Maersk’s existing services.

“2M represents a product upgrade in frequency, particularly in the transatlantic where we don’t have a great product,” he told assembled investors and analyst.

Presumably there are clauses within the 2M VSA that allows the partners to provide additional services case-by-case across the network, but the more that it happens the more it would be likely to weaken the alliance against its rival groupings.

At the same time, MSC’s marketing initiative on the North Atlantic might dispel some of the concerns still felt by shippers concerning the monopoly of the mega-alliances.

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