Maersk Line today stopped booking export containers from Europe to Asia and the Middle East, according to market sources, while capacity is said to be extremely tight for other lines.
Air freight could feel the benefit, if the capacity crunch continues, according to one forwarder.
Maersk’s block on bookings runs until 27 March, but the situation will be reviewed on the 13th.
The only cargo exemption is when a prior space commitment has been given, according to a memo seen by The Loadstar.
A spokesman for Maersk said: “We can confirm that exceptionally high demand on North Europe to Asia trade has led to challenges with space availability and, consequently, to potential issues with the acceptance of bookings to our customers.
“We are currently reviewing all possible options to minimise this issue and thus reduce the impact to our customers’ business. We will stay in close touch with them to propose best options for securing the smoothest possible flows of their cargo.”
One Dubai logistics expert told The Loadstar the capacity problem was not restricted to Maersk.
“All carriers are congested beyond belief. It’s just like 2013, when there were no bookings for three months. I imagine a lot of carriers are repositioning vessels for the alliances. They are not running to their schedules.”
Ocean carriers blanked an estimated one-third of all westbound voyages in the first week of the Chinese new year holiday at the end of January, and this increased to almost 50% of sailings for the second week.
As a consequence, the respective eastbound voyages were also blanked – thought to be the main reason for the backhaul capacity crunch.
However, it appears likely that the tight booking situation on 2M alliance vessels has worsened with the perception that Maersk and MSC’s competitors will face some disruption from the reshuffle for the new alliances on 1 April.
Indeed, with just a few weeks remaining until the launch of THE Alliance, its UK hub port(s) has still not been officially announced. UK export customers of Hapag-Lloyd, Yang Ming and the Japanese trio of K Line, MOL and NYK are thought to be struggling to organise supply chains.
A beneficiary of the situation, should the block on containership bookings continue, would be air freight.
“They will have to switch to air freight, if the alternative is factory closures,” said one European forwarder.
“It has got to have an impact. They will need to air freight a certain amount. It will matter to European importers, less so to exporters.”
While one airline confirmed it had heard about the situation and was booked up for three months, charter broker Chapman Freeborn said it had seen no evidence of any additional demand and that forwarders had not reported problems with sea freight.
One European air freight forwarder said: “My understanding is that the main issues have been experienced by waste exporters. They typically demand low freight rates, although they have volume, but are usually first to be hit when things are tight and higher margin business is available. They would never consider air freighting this as there is such little value in the ‘product.”
Although Maersk has been the subject of export shipper concerns, it is understood that its 2M partner, MSC, has also introduced some “booking restrictions”. And another Felixstowe-based carrier told The Loadstartoday “export space is tight at the moment”.
Meanwhile, as previously reported by The Loadstar, Asia-Europe eastbound rates have soared in the past month – Maersk Line’s FAK (freight all kinds) backhaul rates for March are higher than their headhaul equivalent.
Furthermore, freight rates for high-volume export commodities, such as wastepaper and cardboard for recycling in China, have been hiked even higher, with Maersk charging $2,125 per 40ft from Felixstowe, compared with $1,600 for other commodities.
Some shippers have voiced concerns that carriers could be on the verge of a prolonged export booking stop like 2013’s, which caused chaos in the supply chain.
A major UK cardboard recycler told The Loadstar today that rates had “risen sharply” and “we have seen increases of up to 200%, with some carriers, compared with six months ago”.
A spokesman said: “My feeling is that carriers are managing their allocations much more strictly and head offices are removing control from local offices. Some of the smaller players are saying publicly that they are not taking scrap for March, but we are seeing small pockets of space being offered last minute when allocations are not filled.”
The Dubai source added: “The carriers are playing hardball. They will only carry based on contracts.
“It looks like a manipulation of the market. The alliance repositioning will need a monstrous amount of organisation.”