False bravado

COMMENT: There seems to be a groundswell of opinion that 2017 will be the year that ports start getting bolshie with shipping lines. The year that they start saying ‘no’ to the unrealistic demands being made of them. The year that they find their voice in discussions with alliances. Prophetic or wishful thinking? In my view, it’s definitely the latter, writes Carly Fields.

I’ve heard this assertion more than a few times over the past month and indeed, in this issue, the same sentiment crops up in more than one feature. Tired of dancing to the tune of shipping lines that keep ordering longer and/or beamier ships without any thought of the infrastructure needed to service them, ports are supposedly about to face up to their nemeses.


But while I appreciate the sentiment, that’s an unrealistic eventuality. Ports will never enjoy the upper hand in contract handling negotiations when there is overcapacity on the handling side and choice a-plenty for the lines. If one port kicks up a fuss, there could be another convenient to the trade that could jump in and steal the business away. Shipping lines aren’t short of suitors at the moment.


So realistically how demanding can a port be? If they want business from the ‘big boys’ the kowtowing needs to continue - as a port executive points out in our feature on dwell times (Seaside shuffle, Page 16), nobody is openly keen to poke their customers in the eye.


But there has certainly been one positive outcome of the alliance and big ship onslaught: collaboration between what were previously competing ports through the pairing up of port authorities in Asia, Europe and the US, mirroring the moves of their shipping line customers. The rationale is that two, or more, heads are better than one and undoubtedly the lure of spreading the costs of crane extensions or replacement to serve larger ships is hard to resist.


This trend will continue through 2017, as more ports add their names to the ‘big-ship-ready’ roster and the competition intensifies further. If not already in negotiations with neighbouring outlets, ports should kick-start that process with some urgency as if they don’t, there may be another in the vicinity that gets the jump on them.


So, while I don’t see ports collectively rising up to bop shipping lines and alliances on the nose, there will be growth in port solidarity through increased co-operation. Who knows, maybe a few more years down the line these early steps towards better teamwork might result in ports finally finding their backbones in their discussions with shipping lines. Here’s hoping.


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