Yet another Europe-Asia container capacity crunch rears its head

2M alliance partners Maersk and MSC have advised their North European customers of five void Asia sailings in March, and the members of the Ocean and THE alliances are expected to confirm a similar number of cancellations.

A Maersk customer advisory said: “The blankings are occurring in connection with the blanked westbound sailings due to the Chinese New Year seasonal demand reductions.”

He added: “Our planners are looking at the best export options now, and as soon as we have those we will advise our customers.

“Always the knock-on effect of blanking programmes is that a withdrawn headhaul sailing means a backhaul voyage has to be pulled as well, and that can cause temporary problems for regular export shippers,” he said.

“It seems that every few months they cancel a big batch of sailings from Felixstowe to Asia and we end up having boxes on the quay for weeks without any firm idea of when they will get to their destination,” one UK forwarder told.

“The local office doesn’t know, the port doesn’t know and we are working in the dark, yet we are still expected to give a sensible reply to our shippers on the ETA of their containers,” he said.

Exporters will also be concerned that carriers will try to use the capacity crunch to hike rates again. In the export crisis in November, following the carriers’ blank sailing programmes after the Chinese Golden Week holiday, eastbound rates briefly skyrocketed.

Indeed, a UK forwarder told, his carrier “had him over a barrel”, with his containers stuck on the quay at Felixstowe and claiming he was offered “prompt” shipment – but at a much higher rate.

“We just need to know what we are paying when we book the box, high or low. If we agree a price, we expect the carrier to honour it, as we have to with our customers.”

Moreover, project cargo and out-of-gauge shippers to Asia are, arguably, more severely impacted by the often random last-minute export sailings by carriers, given the more extensive planning required for delivery of their cargo.

Meanwhile, the latest liftings data released by Japanese carrier ONE confirms the growing importance of backhaul traffic to the container lines. In December, ONE recorded 94% utilisation level on its Asia to Europe westbound sailings with a healthy average 73% load factor on the backhaul legs.