A BREATH OF CONFIDENCE IN THE SHIPPING WORLD

A BREATH OF CONFIDENCE IN THE SHIPPING WORLD

The New Year has started with a rush in the shipping world, and I, for one, am very pleased.

Britain's London Eye, that multimillion-dollar millennium monster of a Ferris wheel that failed safety checks and didn't even turn on New Year's Eve, has been forgotten. The red faces of the British Airways promotion experts who poured money into the mechanical mess have soured a deep white.The river of British government money that supposedly lit the Thames through fireworks displays at the witching hour will be swept under the carpet, and normality at last returns.

Personally, I'd like to thank everyone who has echoed my view: What a waste of time and money that lot was.

On the shipping front, of course, money is not being wasted. There is a breath of New Year's resoluteness in the industry, and lines are looking for new ways to earn new money in a new, more confident environment.

France's Compagnie Maritime d'Affretement, that shipping line the competition loves to hate, but probably secretly admires, has aspirations to become globally recognized. It always did - but from April, it will be a true worldwide name.

CMA will join up with Taiwan's Kien Hung Shipping Co. to offer a weekly all-water service between Asia and the U.S. East Coast through the Panama Canal.

Nine ships will be deployed, and Chinese ports will figure heavily on the billing. Total additional annualized capacity comes out at around 130,000 TEUs.

Lob this one in with CMA's recently introduced trans-Pacific service, which is now extended to Europe. Sprinkle in the already established Asia/Europe and Asia/Mediterranean connections, and voila. Global recognition.

But there are some strange things here. If you want to serve the Asia/U.S. East Coast market, wouldn't you go the other way through the Suez Canal to do it? That way, if one market starts to founder, then there's something in between - like the Mediterranean, for example.

Of course, CMA, and associated company CGM, have strong connections in the Caribbean. But is that really enough to support this one? And to go into partnership with Kien Hung?

For those who may puzzle over the identity of this carrier, Kien Hung is big in intra-Asian trades and has a strong presence on the Asia/South Africa/South America trades. It got stung in Europe/South Africa some years back, and still nurses the scars.

Apart from that, these two are streets apart.

Meanwhile, up on the North Atlantic, that Canadian gateway battleground is reemerging with interest. The Russians are coming. And make no bones about it, they mean business - well, as much as they can mean business.

Bolt Canada Line, which has been on the Europe/Montreal trades for more than a decade, is teaming up with the Far Eastern Shipping Co. (Fesco), that strangely aloof organization that seems to succeed where others don't.

Fesco always manages to sweep aside complications of Russian-style business with an almost arrogant swagger.

Starting later this month, or in early February, Fesco and Bolt Canada will run a three-ship service between Northern Europe and Montreal. Bolt Canada currently operates two vessels every 10 to 11 days. Fesco doesn't have a direct service.

Six months ago, Bolt Canada dumped its own weekly service for the 10-to-11 day itinerary. Now, the story is different. Rates westbound are headed up, and volumes are increasing. Fesco likes the look of it all and is taking the plunge.

Who said the shipping industry was full of weaklings?

Last week, I reiterated the positive points of speed in shipping service and questioned the logic behind those who reckoned time-sensitive goods demanded differing service-price levels (rates to those in the business).

When Norasia introduced its new ships to the Montreal service in 1998-99, the company promoted them as speedboats. After all, 25 knots on that trade is fast.

When the ships were switched to the Pacific, the same labeling was nailed. Truth is, they are no faster than anything else around on that trade.

The reason they are succeeding is down to clever scheduling. On Norasia's Pacific southwest service, the timing is such that the ships arrive with their bellies full of Asian exports in Los Angeles on Thursday. The goods are distributed and at destination around Friday. Apparently, there are few other carriers who do this - well, not in Los Angeles, anyway.

So it's not necessarily fast ships that make it work, it's those marketing people who recognize the niche, jump in, and provide the customer with the goods.

But then, that's what niches are all about. As they say, you can't please all the people all the time, but you can sure try to please some of them some of the time.