A slowing of import volumes into North Europe has done little to mitigate congestion at hub ports in the region, with full container yards and labor shortages hampering operations across terminals, warehouses, and trucking services, resulting in lengthening ship delays.
Schedule delays for container vessels completing round trip voyages between Asia and North Europe averaged 20 days between May 1 and May 15, up from 17 days for the month of February, according to maritime analyst Alphaliner. Average Asia-North Europe round trip voyages for the largest vessels are now taking 101 days, compared with about 77 days on their pro forma schedules.
Dominique von Orelli, global head of ocean for DHL Global Forwarding, attributed the deterioration of port flow in Europe primarily to longer dwell times for containers at terminals, rather than an increase in volume.
“It is not really related to the demand but to the fact that customers don’t take possession of their goods fast enough,” von Orelli told JOC.com. “That means the ports are congested and the vessels can’t be unloaded in an efficient manner. This in return means warehouses in Europe are full and the customers are in no rush to take the goods they ordered.”
Volumes from Northeast Asia, China, and Southeast Asia to North Europe declined 5 percent year over year to 1.3 million TEU in the first quarter of 2022, according to data from Container Trades Statistics (CTS).
Volume data for April and May are not yet available, but falling spot rates on Asia–Europe routes indicate a continued slowdown in demand. Average short-term rates from Asia to North Europe have fallen 30 percent since Jan. 1 to $5,939 per TEU, according to freight rate benchmarking platform Xeneta. That the spot market is not far above long-term contract rates, which have risen 8 percent since to $5,488 per TEU in the same period, reflects the slowing volume on the trade route, as well as a shipper strategy of locking in longer-term rates to avoid volatile short-term prices.
The global head of sea freight for a Europe-based forwarder, who asked not to be identified, said his customers were experiencing delays of up to three weeks in most of the main ports in North Europe.
“The situation in the northern European ports has been tense for weeks now and is not getting any better,” he said.
Feeder operator Unifeeder estimates it has deployed 20 percent more capacity to carry the same volume and maintain its schedules in the intra-Europe trade due to the bottlenecks.
“The congestion situation in North Europe in key hubs is still critical, with high yard density and unreliable and inadequate availability of labor,” Martin Gaard Christiansen, CCO of global feeders and CEO Europe at Unifeeder, told JOC.com. “From an operational perspective we have deployed additional tonnage in our core sectors to counter the longer voyage days caused by the waiting time, and as a contingency are working via more hubs.”
A Hapag-Lloyd spokesman told JOC.com said the operational situation in North Europe “remains challenging.”
“The situation in Europe could turn worse as the pick-up of laden import containers is slowing down due to restricted inland transport capacity and (fully) utilized inland storage facilities,” the spokesman said.
"As one measure (to ease congestion), we are diverting sailings on a regular basis to perform double calls, discharging in other less congested ports nearby and loading the exports in a congested port. This improves yard density and allows us to deliver cargoes faster as we avoid waiting times outside.”
Ahmed Hassan, head of ocean customer logistics in Europe for Maersk, told JOC.com that some of the Northern European terminals were “operationally challenged,” but he believed the peak disruption point has been reached.
He said Maersk was experiencing increased waiting times because of the disrupted vessel schedules out of Asia that has resulted in ships bunching, as well as shortages in the availability of labor in ports, and longer dwell times of containers.
“We are monitoring the situation daily and taking corrective actions where possible to reduce the challenges,” he said. “At this point we don’t believe we will see a worsening impact,” he added.