LYKES PLANS TO RESUME DIRECT SERVICE TO MIDDLE EAST BY END OF MARCH RELAY OPERATION TO BE PHASED OUT

LYKES PLANS TO RESUME DIRECT SERVICE TO MIDDLE EAST BY END OF MARCH RELAY OPERATION TO BE PHASED OUT

Lykes Bros. Steamship Co. said it hopes to resume direct vessel service to the Middle East by the end of March.

Lykes has been serving the region through a relay operation since late last year, when U.S. government subsidies expired for the ships used in its previous direct service.The carrier plans to serve the same ports and offer the same 19-day sailing frequency as it had previously between the Middle East and the U.S. East and Gulf coasts, said Roger Clark, senior vice president of Mediterranean services.

The carrier replaced the direct operation with a relay via Naples, Italy, where cargo is transferred. The connecting shipping line Ignazio Messina & C SpA carries the cargo between Italy and the Middle East, while Lykes moves the freight between Italy and the United States.

The ships that Lykes had used in the direct service launched in early 1991 ''got to the end of their economic life," Mr. Clark explained. "They really were too inefficient to run in that trade."

Lykes is seeking to charter three replacement vessels, each able to carry the equivalent of 850 to 1,200 20-foot containers. Direct service will resume when the charter vessels are deployed.

The relay has not helped Lykes' business on the trade.

"It's never good for a direct service to go to a relay," Mr. Clark said. ''Our customers have patiently stuck with us, but they want us to go back to direct."

The relay increased the carrier's transit time on the route by seven days, prompting it to reduce rates to about 10 percent below those offered by the ''8900" Lines, a group of carriers that jointly set their prices on the Middle East-U.S. route.

Lykes plans to end the relay with Messina in the next month, Mr. Clark said. If necessary, it might temporarily offer a combination of direct and relay service as it phases in the charter vessels, he added.

The carrier plans to resume direct service to the following ports: Kuwait; Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates; Dammam and Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia; Alexandria, Egypt; Baltimore; Charleston, S.C.; and Galveston, Texas.