TRANS-ATLANTIC RUMINATIONS

TRANS-ATLANTIC RUMINATIONS

Things are shaping up on the trans-Atlantic after many months of deliberation. Serious consideration has been given to maintaining some form of stability on the world's most volatile trade lane.

But while much editorial space has been given to the two big groupings - Maersk Sealand/New World Alliance, and Grand Alliance/Americana Ships - it's worthwhile to look at what else has happened here, and what could transpire in the immediate future.

France's largest shipping line, CMA-CGM, will enter the trans-Atlantic, probably in late August or early September, with up to 600 slots on the back of the Maersk Sealand/New World grouping. Effectively, that means two services on the North Atlantic, and one on the South Atlantic.

For CMA-CGM, the port coverage is as good as it could ever have wanted: virtually the entire coastline from New York south to the U.S. Gulf, with calls at all the major container-handling locations.

Interesting, isn't it? If you consider that without CMA-CGM as a new entrant in the trade, and the late switch of camps by the New World Alliance from Americana to Maersk Sealand, the latter would have been in dire straits trying to fill their Econships and the TA3 service ships.

There's a lot happening on the Mediterranean-U.S. East Coast-U.S. Gulf trades as well right now. APL is coming into the trade for the first time, and discussions are under way to take slots on the Maersk Sealand service that will deploy six or seven Econships. With at least three of those being U.S.-flag, one has to wonder if there is some loophole in the law that allows APL the privilege of carrying military and preference cargo. Maersk Sealand could ''lend'' one of the ships to APL, or better still bareboat charter it. Surely that would suffice.

We all know about P&O Nedlloyd and Farrell Lines on the Med-U.S. trade, and now Hapag-Lloyd has come along with its own non-U.S. flag ship to make it a six-ship weekly service. Other Grand Alliance members could take slots. Orient Overseas Container Line is a possibility, as is NYK.

Of course, the big question is what will happen with the Americana Ships product on this trade. The carrier currently operates a five-ship operation that runs every eight or nine days. An eastbound call at Miami has been dropped, and there has been talk for months that Lykes, Contship and TMM will introduce a sixth ship to make it possible to operate weekly.

September has been mentioned as when this might happen. The trouble is that the charter market isn't exactly overflowing with ideal tonnage at ideal rates right now.

These bits and pieces seem to fit together nicely, but perhaps it's not the same feeling at China Shipping Group. You will remember that the Shanghai-based group has two Asia-Europe services. One goes to North Europe, the other to the Med.

It appears as if China Shipping has problems on the Asia-Mediterranean service. Ships are sailing at full capacity westbound, but are struggling to reach a third of deadweight capacity when heading back east. Thus, we have a rather lopsided service.

A lot of transshipment cargo moves over ports such as Barcelona and Genoa on this service, and one answer to that problem could be to change the concept from a transshipment-style service to one that acts on the hub port philosophy.

That could be done by extending the service to the U.S. East Coast, rather like the old Cosco-Yangming-''K'' Line link. But there is a belief within that it may be better to extend it, not across the Atlantic, but up to North Europe. Personally, it all looks like a step in the wrong direction, and complications become more apparent, because later this year, the group starts taking delivery of the first of more than 20 new post-Panamax ships it has on order.

Evergreen's Lloyd Triestino was being primed for entry into the Med-U.S. East Coast trades, but, surprisingly, the plug was pulled on the potential deal last month, with insiders telling of internal discord over vessel space and size. Evergreen, meanwhile, continues service with its own slot allocation on the back of Americana Ships.

The surprise omissions from the Med-U.S. trade are Mitsui O.S.K. Lines and Hyundai Merchant Marine, both partners of APL in the New World Alliance.

Neither Mitsui O.S.K. Lines nor Hyundai are too open about their intentions, but as one source told me last week, ''We need to get ourselves sorted out on the North Europe run first, before we start looking elsewhere.''

The clue is to watch for the first openings of solely owned agents in places like Italy and Spain. When Mitsui (Milan), or Hyundai (Huelva) pops up, you know it won't be long before the cargo starts flowing across the Atlantic.