There's a battle brewing out there right now, and this one is off the sports fields and in the murky depths of the most volatile of volatiles, the Atlantic.

As has now become common knowledge, the existing vessel-sharing and slot-sharing agreements will disappear. Some will see their official demise on July 4. Others will have to wait until October before the full run of legal understanding and commercial sense allow the curtain to fall on yet another era of container trade.

But while the old partnership stalwarts commit ashes to ashes and dust to dust, it may be pertinent to assemble some kind of understanding of where this is all going. Time maybe to underpin the apparent new philosophy that success in this arena comes from cleverly put together schedules, a recognition of real market needs, and the ability to provide a product that meets all.

Americana Ships, comprising Lykes and TMM Lines, has an existing agreement to provide space to APL Ltd. and Mitsui O.S.K. Lines on the North and South Atlantic.

That agreement will end in October. As of then, Americana Ships will link up with the Grand Alliance (P&O Nedlloyd, Orient Overseas Container Line, Hapag-Lloyd and NYK) to deploy 31 ships on five strings. It will be the largest capacity provider on the Atlantic.Before that happens, the Grand Alliance will kick off its own Atlantic Express and South Atlantic Gulf Express. Americana will take slots on a butterfly-configured service deploying eight ships. The arrangement will save one ship and about $10 million a year by providing a continuous link on a rotation of Europe, U.S. North Atlantic, Europe, U.S. South Atlantic and Europe, rather than two separate North and South strings.

The butterfly will spread its wings in July, because it's formed from a chrysalis that already has the official nods. It's a new service, it's not tied down by agreements already in place, and the Grand and Americana linesreckon it will be a winner.

It could achieve recognition on its own, because if transit times mean success, then seven days from Southampton to New York should provide amply for U.K. export market, and nine days from Rotterdam to New York should make the European export players take more than a passing glance.

The European export market also comes up for recognition via the new-styled Pacific Atlantic Express. This Grand Alliance product will offer slots to Americana, and is the process of upgrading capacity from 13 vessels of around 2,700 TEUs to the 4,000-4,600-TEU frame.

Le Havre will be added to the existing port rotation of this Grand service. After that call, the next port is Halifax, followed by New York.Starting in October, the Americana Gulf Atlantic Sprint Service will offer slots to the Grand Alliance, and it looks like Le Havre and Miami will drop out of that one. Americana calls at those ports now, but the likelihood is that both will be dropped simply because they are covered by other service connections.

On the side of the fence, the Maersk Sealand/New World Alliance linkup on the Atlantic will obviously go through a phase-in that will not be complete until the existing Americana/New World deal runs its course by October.

It's interesting to note that the New World's East Coast Service, which runs between Asia and the U.S. East Coast, and will be extended to Europe with three additional ships to make 12 in total, will not call in Germany.

Within the new Maersk Sealand/New World Alliance grouping, Germany's North Atlantic trade will be amply covered by the Maersk Sealand TA3 service, which calls in Bremerhaven. It's interesting that Bremerhaven also figures on the Maersk Sealand South Atlantic service, which retains its five Atlantic-class Econships to serve Charleston, Everglades and Houston.The big plus of the New World Alliance's East Coast Service will come from its capability to meet the U.K. import market demand with fast transit. First eastbound port after leaving Norfolk will be either Felixstowe or Southampton, but that was something the Grand butterflies figured out long time back.

Westbound, the East Coast Service will make Le Havre its last stop before striking out to New York. That's a great incentive, because there's a not lot else out there that offers fast transit on that sea route, which is probably why Mediterranean Shipping Co. decided to add the French port westbound on its Atlantic schedules.

It's never been easy on the Atlantic, and with the booming economies of both sides of the pond now making life ever uneasy, I have the awful feeling this could be the foundation for more than just competitive transit times.

Perhaps the real Trans-Atlantic Conference Agreement should stand up and be noticed.