Ocean Freight Blues Might Give Flight to New Business for Air Cargo

The weeklong port strikes on the west coast of the United States last year, causing severe trade disruptions, triggered a much-welcomed boost for the air cargo industry. Beginning this summer, the scenario could repeat itself on a smaller scale, because the weighing of all sea freight containers, prior to loading, has been mandated.

The mandated weighing of every sea freight container beginning soon, might cause backlogs at ports  -  courtesy Hapag-Lloyd
The mandated weighing of every sea freight container beginning soon, will cause backlogs at ports - courtesy Hapag-Lloyd

Johan Schryver, the head of Hamburg’s Association of Forwarding Agents, expressed his concern, in an exclusive interview with CargoForwarder Global, about the new challenges shippers and their agents are facing: “The regulator informed us, officially only on the 11th of April, about the new implementing provisions for the mandated weighing of containers before they are stowed on board a ship.” In the same breath, he says the weighing procedures might not cause big problems, despite some unresolved technical issues. “It’s the unawareness of many shippers who have not yet addressed this pressing topic and are stumbling unwittingly into this matter.” Their containers might be barred from loading due to the missing proof of weight and remain stranded at the harbor.

It is obvious who the big boys are…
In contrast, as Schryver points out, the big players will not be affected by the amendment to the transport rules, approved by the EU and implemented by the national governments. “Those guys are pros; they know exactly the requirements when booking transport capacity for their exports at a shipping company.” Providing examples, he mentions the automotive industry, chemical product makers or large trading companies who deploy dozens of containers each day.

… in contrast to many smaller players
“What worries me most is the prevailing ignorance of smaller and mid-sized exporters that have occasional transports and haven’t heard much about the upcoming weighing requirement,” Johan states. Like the small machine manufacturer or producer of special instruments, located in the hinterlands, that might be surprised by the new regulation. Their goods could get stranded at harbors like Hamburg, Bremen or Antwerp if they are not examined by an official weight checker or not verified by a packaging company.

Precise guidelines
The basic guidelines for sea transport, first proposed by the International Maritime Organization and meanwhile approved by the national regulators around the world, are very clear. They read:

  1. the shipper is responsible for providing the verified weight by stating it in the shipping document and submitting it to the master or his representative and to the terminal representative sufficiently in advance to be used in the preparation of the ship stowage plan; and
  2. the verified gross mass is a condition for loading a packed container onto a ship.

Weight discrepancies increase risk
Should a discrepancy between declared gross mass and actual gross mass of a packed container go unnoticed, it could have an adverse impact on the safety of the ship, seafarers and shore-side workers, by leading to incorrect stowage, potentially collapsing stacks of containers or containers going overboard.

“Once a container arrives at a terminal it is too late for weighing procedures. The terminal operator hasn’t got the time or capacity to weigh any steel box retrospectively, given the huge pile of them he is moving continuously,” says Schryver.

Politician remains calm
Helmsman Gunther Bonz of the Business Association Hamburg Port estimates that up to 1% of all containers passing through the harbor’s terminals might get stranded after arriving there. “We have sufficient scales here at the port to weigh the boxes but this job has to be accomplished before truckers offload the containers at one of the terminals.” Given the mandated weighing regulations “both shippers and forwarders will go through a fast learning phase in the months ahead before things become routine,” estimates Frank Horch, Hamburg’s Economic Affairs Minister. “It will be similar to the implementation of new security rules in air cargo some years ago, so I’m quite relaxed about it.”

But what about states lacking technology and infrastructure?
This might be the case for his colleagues in western and central European countries. However, when it comes to central China, Nicaragua or Nigeria, to name just a few that might be facing similar problems starting July 1, the picture of mandated container weighing becomes quite gloomy, as Johan Schryver confirms. “I doubt they have sufficient calibrated scales of quality class 3 which are the only ones legally permitted for weighing goods loaded on board ships.” These are expensive and cannot be bought in a shopping mall around the corner!

With about two months still to go until weighing all shipments stowed on board a vessel becomes mandatory, Schryver deplores the lack of information by many exporters, even in the EU. “There are still a lot of billowing foggy clouds floating by.”

Can air freight benefit from sea freight problems?
You don’t need to be a fortune teller to predict that some sea freight shipments will get stranded, among them valuable and urgent goods and as a consequence, contractual transport conditions might be violated, causing delays, legal disputes and monetary compensation. Given the situation, it remains to be seen if air freight will become the alternative to some ocean freight consignments, slipping into the hero role and ensuring timely delivery.

Heiner Siegmund  /  Michael Taweel

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