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  • Writer's pictureStephen Fodor

Port of LA: Cargo, wait times climb as officials eye COVID-19 upticks hitting ports in China

August 18, 2021

The number of container ships at anchor outside the Port of Los Angeles is expected to rise again, with an anticipated 90% of arriving vessels next month “heading straight to the parking lot,” said port Executive Director Gene Seroka on Tuesday, Aug. 17.

In his monthly update with reporters, Seroka also reported that cargo was up nearly 4% in July over the same month in 2020. And the port is looking to end 2021 with a record-breaking cargo total of 10.5 million Twenty-foot Equivalent Units, or TEUs, the industry’s standard measuring stick for containers.

July was the 12th consecutive month of year-over-year increases.

Neighboring Port of Long Beach officials announced earlier this month that July cargo there hit a 4.2% increase over July 2020.

Long Beach has broken monthly cargo records in 12 of the last 13 months.

Exports continue to be the disappointment, with L.A.’s loaded exports dropping in July by 27.6% compared to the same period the previous year. It was the lowest number of exports at the Port of Los Angeles since 2005.

Empty containers heading back to Asia continue to multiply as well, making a 20.4% jump in July compared to last year — and making “air” the biggest U.S. export currently, Seroka said.

A national export strategy, Seroka said, is needed.

And looking toward end-of-the-year cargo level projections, Seroka said uncertainty is being fueled by increases in delta variant-fueled COVID-19 cases both in the U.S. and in China where the majority of the port’s shipped goods originate. A new coronavirus spread recently led to a partial shutdown of one of the world’s busiest container ports in central China, Ningbo-Zoushan.

“There are a lot of variables at play across our trading geography right now, we’re keeping a close watch on central China,” Seroka said. He added, however, that Ningbo is only about a three-hour truck drive from Shanghai and cargo can currently be redirected there.

Meanwhile, he said, consumer buying remains “in full force.”

“This remarkable, sustained import surge is pushing the supply chain to new levels,” Seroka said, crediting longshore workers and terminal operators for processing the loads.

In other comments, Seroka said with the holiday peak shipping season now just starting — and with the increased backups anticipated — shoppers might consider starting on their gift lists a bit early this year.

The cargo surge that has impacted both the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach began a year ago and frequently led to backups of container ships that had to remain at anchor outside the breakwater, sometimes for as long as a week at a time.

Longshore crews already are working full and sometimes double shifts, and there continue to be pressure points throughout the supply chain with warehouse space often overflowing.

Even if port terminals all went on a 24/7 schedule, there would still be hiccups along the way once cargo departs for its final destination by rail and truck.

“Warehouses are overflowing, rail yards and carriage are maxed out, chassis containers continue to be hard to come by, ships are coming in and waiting to get worked on and factories are behind in orders, even though our output is at record levels,” he said.

Both anchor and terminal dwell times were up 75% in July, he said. June figures had those dwell times up 50% over June 2020 numbers.

Average wait times outside the harbor remained at a steady five days in July, Seroka said, but look to be increasing.

Ship wait times outside the harbor reached their peak of eight days in March 2021.

On-dock rail dwell time in July 2021 was over 13 days, “a new high,” Seroka said.

Street dwell times for warehouses was at 8.3 days, “close to the spring record of 8.8 days,” Seroka said.

“Anchorage and dwell times are trending in the wrong direction,” Seroka said, “and the bottleneck looks to be increasing. We’ll be watching this very closely.”

Anchorage wait times outside the harbor reached their peak at eight days in March 2021, he said.

Borrowing an analogy from Federal Maritime Commission Chairman Daniel Maffei, Seroka said the challenge facing the entire supply chain amounts to “squeezing 10 lanes of freeway traffic into five lanes.”

More resilience is needed, Seroka said.

“In today’s environment something is happening almost daily to cause concern in the supply chain,” he said.

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