A LONG "WILL THEY, WON'T THEY' SAGA IS OVER

A LONG "WILL THEY, WON'T THEY' SAGA IS OVER

The long-running ''will they, won't they'' saga of the Grand Alliance and Americana Ships joining up on the Atlantic is finally over. All that's needed now is for the ports and terminals to be confirmed.

The departure of APL and Mitsui O.S.K. made little difference in the end to Americana. It was always going to be a Grand Americana grouping, and what was announced last week was probably no different than what would have finally been revealed with or without the New World guys.In terms of individual strings and capacity, and probably transit times in some cases, this one is the leader. There will be five strings deploying a total of 31 ships.

If we assume that the current vessel-sharing agreement between Maersk Sealand, P&O Nedlloyd and OOCL is a Maersk Sealand service, and not a Grand Alliance service, the new grouping has 27 ships on the Atlantic at the moment.

So let's look at each string in turn.

There will be a butterfly route that will comprise two separate strings. One will serve the North Atlantic and the other the South Atlantic.

This strange phenomena - a trend on the Atlantic that enables carriers to save one or two ships by combining strings to offer a fortnightly coverage of some ports - will deploy eight ships.

The ships will sail from North Europe to the North Atlantic, then back to North Europe. Then they head down to the South Atlantic and return back to North Europe. So it really combines two strings that would normally deploy nine ships in total.

The drop in frequency at North Atlantic ports, for example, is adequately covered by one or more of the other strings. So it is economical to run. I wonder why no one thought of that before. And I have a feeling that I am about to be told someone did, many years ago.

Next comes the Pacific Atlantic Express of the Grand Alliance. That's already there with 13 ships, but is in the process of being upgraded from 2,800-TEU capacity ships to vessels of 4,100 to 4,600 TEUs.

It's interesting to note that the 4,600-TEU ships, which incidently are Hapag-Lloyd new vessels, are the largest (in capacity terms) that can navigate the Panama Canal. The six ships, all from P&O Nedlloyd, are being switched from the Asia-Europe trades as new 5,500-TEU post-Panamax vessels come in there.

The fourth string will be the old-style Gumex service that serves North Europe-U.S. Gulf-Mexico. It will deploy five ships, each averaging 2,400-TEU capacity. Ironically, this has always been a Grand Alliance-Americana Ships service, simply because it involves Hapag-Lloyd and TMM Lines, with Lykes slot-chartering.

The fifth will be known as the Gulf Atlantic Service (GASS), and deploy five ships averaging 2,800-TEU capacity. It will be what it says it will be: a dedicated North Europe-South Atlantic service, rather like the existing Americana Gulf Sprint service.

Before anyone starts getting excited and saying this is a huge injection of extra capacity and an unfair competitive product, be warned: It isn't. Well, not that much, anyway.

It's extremely difficult to work out the capacity here because one of the services - PAX - also serves the Pacific trades. But I like difficult tasks, so let's try.

Let's say the PAX keeps 50 percent of its capacity for the Atlantic, and the share has not and will not change that much. That gives an annualized capacity of 140,000 TEUs compared with the existing level of around 75,000 TEUs.

On the butterfly service, it's more complex. But taking North and South Atlantic together, the new annualized capacity will be around 140,000 TEUs.

On the Gumex, it will be around 125,000 TEUs, and on the GASS, around 145,000 TEUs.

Total: some 540,000 TEUs for five strings.

Right now, if we say the Maersk Sealand VSA deploys Maersk Sealand ships, the Grand Alliance only has 75,000 TEUs of ships on the PAX.

Americana Ships has two strings of its own - the North Atlantic and Gulf Atlantic Sprint deploying a total nine vessels. Total annualized capacity there is around 280,000 TEUs.

Then on the existing GUMEX service, there's around 140,000 TEUs.

Total: some 495,000 TEUs for four strings.

The increase in annualized capacity will be slightly more than 9 percent.

The Maersk Sealand agreement with New World Alliance shows little or no increase in capacity, with the North Atlantic service of the Econships replaced by ships of similar size by the New World lines.

So all in all, it's a fairly responsible approach by everyone. July 4 is when it all begins - an appropriate day if ever there was one - and by the end of the year, it'll all be history.

That's, of course, assuming the military doesn't lean too heavily on Maersk Sealand to borrow a few of those old Econships. If that does happen, then we'll see a few more changes.