With a pressing need to clear out empty containers that are backing up in Southern California, the 2M Alliance of Maersk Line and Mediterranean Shipping Co. will deploy three more mega-ships to the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex beginning in late March.
The 2M carriers are temporarily upsizing vessels in their TP6 and TP2 services to between 19,000 and 23,000 TEU capacity because they anticipate a rebound in containerized imports from China beginning in April. They are also responding to calls from the two ports and their 12 terminal operators to focus on returning empty containers to Asia that have been accumulating in the region since the Lunar New Year holidays in Asia, and disruptions to the supply chain caused by the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).
Factories in China closed for the holidays that began on Jan. 25, and many remained closed for several more weeks as the Chinese government implemented measures to contain the spread of COVID-19. With US imports from China plunging, carriers in the trans-Pacific trades announced the canceling of more than 80 vessels to the West Coast from early February to early April.
The blank sailings significantly reduced westbound capacity to Asia, setting off alarm bells at the ports. “In response to the extraordinary number of blank sailings, and the escalating number of empty containers piling up across Southern California, the Port of Long Beach is partnering with ocean carriers to evacuate thousands of empty containers and reposition them to Asia,” said Noel Hacegaba, Long Beach’s deputy executive director and chief operating officer.
Maersk and MSC normally operate 14,000 TEU vessels in their TP2 and TP6 weekly services. Rather than deploying “extra-loader” vessels in addition to the vessels in the normal weekly rotations, the 2M carriers this month and next will increase weekly capacity by deploying the mega-ships that are not presently deployed in other services.
MSC Oscar arrived in LA on Sunday
The larger vessels due to call later this month will follow the arrival in Los Angeles on Sunday of the 19,000 TEU MSC Oscar at the APM Terminals Pier 400 facility. A Maersk spokesperson said Tuesday the vessel carried some inbound loads from China, although the ship was not filled. He expects it will be full with export loads and empty containers for the return voyage to Asia later this week.
The spokesperson confirmed the 2M carriers will follow soon with three additional upsized vessels. He said the 19,000 to 23,000 TEU ships were chosen because they were “in the right place at the right time.”
With bookings into April beginning to ramp up, carriers, beneficial cargo owners (BCOs), and non-vessel operating common carriers (NVOs) expect imports from Asia and US exports to Asia will begin to return to normal seasonal trends next month. They also expect that with back-to-school merchandise set to arrive in May and June, followed by holiday season imports beginning in August, the summer months could witness larger-than-usual import volumes in the trans-Pacific trades.
Imports took a major hit in February, with Los Angeles reporting that loaded imports declined 22.5 percent year over year. Long Beach has not released its import numbers, but the port announced earlier it anticipates imports in February will decline more than 6 percent from February 2019.