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  • Allen Czermak

Ship Traffic Is Wrecking U.S. Water Port Operations

People have seen the images of ships parked in the water just outside the Port of Los Angeles waiting to be given the signal to come into the port. So far the port has broken the record in 2021 with 100+ ships waiting to be docked and unloaded. News agencies are stirring up news that consumers won’t be able to get their gifts in time for the holidays and stores won’t be stocked in time for the Black Friday rush. Like always, there is lots of hype without anyone defining the crux of the problem that creates ship congestion at the ports that are littered on the shores of the United States.

So, we hear stories of retailers using helicopters to access shipping containers that are packed with holiday merchandise. But it’s not at all a practical solution for 99.99% of customers waiting for their cargo coming from Asia. Just last week I was speaking to an online retailer who sells nut gift trays and they simply can’t get their hands on wooden tray supplies for the upcoming holiday season. Local wood manufacturing companies are still more than five times the price in comparison with Chinese manufacturing companies. But the problem is that production is 30 to 45 days and the time for delivery is anywhere from two to three months due to the ship congestion. Many retailers are telling manufacturers overseas to ship the cargo via air where costs start at $1500. But this won’t solve the problem for the 40 foot shipping containers. There is no practical way to get these items in the air and they are not hiring an expensive air cargo company like the Antonov AN-225 Mriya.

Why Are The U.S. Water Ports Jammed?

Ever wonder why it’s the same story at rush hour on every major highway in the United States? We are still stuck in traffic on the Staten Island Expressway in New York and the Santa Ana (5) Freeway in California, and that's with projects to widen the highways, people working at home, and cashless tolls.

The one commonality between rush hour traffic, flight delays, and ship congestion at the water ports is the increase in demand for travel. Naturally there is going to be less traffic and flight delays during the night hours because there are less people traveling. The same is for the shipping industry. There is a huge demand for goods and until all the ships have been able to dock and unload we are going to have to deal with this issue. Even by increasing the hours for the longshoreman who work the ports you are still going to have congestion. Traffic only goes away when the demand for travel slows down.

Right now that’s not happening and local businesses keep on placing more orders for producing products overseas because they are afraid of not having enough stock similar to the toilet paper shortage. There was no shortage, it’s just that there were many hoarders who were nervous about running out of toilet paper. Still I have yet to hear from anyone that they ran out of toilet paper. The spike in demand for products is only making things worse as the maritime traffic coming in from the east just won’t let up. It’s a problem and the solution lies in padding the water routes to the United States. We need to figure out a way to slow down the traffic coming in from China to prevent the bottlenecks at the water ports. Having a ship sitting outside the Port of Los Angeles or the Port of Houston is expensive and helps no one, not the shipper nor the customer.

What Is “Padding” & How Does It Help Global Travel?

Padding is best known in the airline industry. Even with our planes flying faster somehow our flights are taking longer than ever. In the 1960’s it used to take a TWA flight from New York to Washington D.C. just 45 minutes. Today it takes an average of 1 hour and 25 minutes. So what happened? What happened was the demand for air travel skyrocketed and air traffic controllers had to prevent congestion. You can’t just have a flight that has nowhere to land, just circle and circle for an hour. It wastes fuel, time, money, and passengers get very frustrated.

Prior to any flight taking off from anywhere in the world the pilot will receive a flight path and depart at the exact time they are given. Some flight paths will take longer due to padding which is added to keep flights in the air longer and give enough time for the prior flight to land and move out of the way. There are many calculations that are made well in advance of your flight that all play a role in preventing airport congestion.

The same use of padding should be used in maritime travel. Prior to any ship leaving a water port in the far east they will need to be given a water route that will allow the previous ships to dock and get unloaded. If it's too difficult to give an estimated time of arrival the ships should report at the midway point and slow the route to prevent water port congestion. The problem is that there is a huge increase in maritime traffic and the ports cannot handle the congestion. Even being open 24/7 as per President Biden’s executive order won’t solve the problem until the congestion is relieved. Padding can help slow down maritime traffic and allow the ports in the United States to catch up on unloading containers from cargo ships.

Don’t Blame It On The Longshoreman & Truckers

People have a misconception that traffic at the water ports would not be as bad if the longshoreman & truckers worked harder. These folks work very long hours and it’s not an easy feat to operate the machinery they use. Crane operators at the water ports need to be well trained and always focused as one little mistake can lead to a huge disruption in daily operations and even worse, death. It's a big responsibility to hoist a 40 foot container from a ship and onto a truck in under a minute and sometimes even two containers at a time. As for truckers they spend pretty much the whole day on the road and get absolutely no recognition for their hard work. If their bodies would be able to handle it they would probably put in even more than 14 hours a day.

Truckers and longshoremen are just a small piece in the supply chain puzzle. Even by giving their all, it will not solve the ship congestion at the water ports. If there is a worker shortage the problem can be solved by increasing the workers’ wages. The cranes at the water ports are all in use and longshoremen are working around the clock to unload the ships waiting outside the ports. It will take time until the congestion coming in from the east clears but the problem is not the workers at the ports.

Keep The Containers Moving

Once a shipping container is unloaded it will be set in an area to be prepared for pickup by a local intermodal trucking company. From there the container will be taken to another logistics point for it to be shipped to its final destination. It’s not uncommon for a shipping container to hit many logistics points prior to being received by the customer at the final destination.

The problem arises when the container sits around at the port and collects dust. These containers get buried under other containers and will incur drayage fees the longer they stay there. The last thing the port needs is for a container to get unloaded from a ship to sit around and do nothing. That's why it's important for customers to work with a logistics company that will keep their freight moving in order for it to get to you sooner without any added shipping fees.

Final Words

Retail brands and their consumers have become very frustrated with the problem of containers stuck at sea. The problem is not the water ports or its workers but rather the issue is congestion itself. One of the ways for it to be resolved is to lessen the bottlenecks by keeping ships out at sea until they can be received at the docks. The cranes at the water ports can unload the ships rather quickly due to the expensive equipment that is used. Unfortunately, containers can sit around for days and sometimes weeks before being picked up by a local logistics carrier. This can cause a customer shipping bill to go up around $100 per a day for leaving the container at the port too long. These containers need to keep moving in order to make new space for other containers to be unloaded. As the ship traffic eases so will the congestion at the ports. The only problem is it does not look like that’s happening any time soon.



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