Initial estimates for the time it would take to rid West Coast ports of the backlog that built up while dockworkers and their employers negotiated a new labor contract were between four and eight weeks, but now a spokesperson for the Port of Los Angeles says things won’t return to standard for at least three months.
Phillip Sanfield, director of media relations for the Port of Los Angeles, said port workers are moving to reduce the congestion that has aggregated, but there are still a large number of ships at anchor.
“We expect that to last for a few more months,” Sanfield said. “We are moving ships at a much quicker rate than we had been in the last few months, so the pace has picked up, but we still have these congestion issues.”
During the first shift at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports on Thursday, 60 vessels were in port and 28 were sitting idle waiting to be worked on, according to a Pacific Maritime Association dispatch summary.
According to Sanfield, there were no ships at anchor waiting to get in one year ago, the idle time is uncommon. “Normally a ship comes in and a container ship comes in to berth and starts loading and unloading,” he said.
Idle times vary based on the vessel and which terminal it is destined for as some have less backlog than others and are therefore working more quickly. Ships at certain terminals are being worked on within a matter of days, others are waiting longer, sometimes weeks.
Since the tentative agreement was reached just over two weeks ago, Sanfield said both ports, which handle 43 percent of U.S. imports, have been engaged in full day and night operations at the terminals.
“The velocity throughput has increased significantly over the last two weeks,” according to Sanfield. “There’s a lot of labor working these ships now, there wasn’t work being done at night before. There is quite a bit of cargo coming in and out of the port, but the terminals are working at full force.”
With Chinese New Year on Feb. 19 halting operations for a time, a slight slowdown is expected at the ports in the next couple of weeks, which should allow dockworkers to chip away at some of the backlog.
“Over the next four to six weeks we would expect to make a dent in the ships that are coming in,” Sanfield said. “Over a period of three months we expect things to restore to some degree of normalcy.”
Negotiations for the contract between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association, which caused the gridlock at ports on the West Coast, may have dragged on for nine months, but other matters also contributed to the present pile-up.
“Some of these issues are systemic,” Sanfield said.
Larger ships are coming in, for one. Trans-pacific ships increased in size by 16 percent to 6,250 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in 2014 — a number triple that of 20 years ago — and existing port terminals were designed to accommodate ships half the size of those coming to call today. The terminals can still accommodate the same volume, but spread out rather than more impact at one time.
In addition to the bigger ships at berth, vessels are coming in with different alliances than they once had.
Drawing on an airport analogy, Sanfield said whereas before, one airline would come into one terminal and unload all of its passengers and baggage in one place, now four airlines are coming into one terminal with passengers and baggage, and sorting everything becomes far less simple, as is the case at the port terminals.
During the Trans-Pacific Maritime (TPM) Conference, which took place last week, Sanfield said stakeholders discussed the changes that need to occur both at the West Coast port terminals and throughout the entire logistics pattern, including accommodating bigger ships, improving the chassis pools and issues with trucking and sorting incoming cargo.
“At the Port of Los Angeles, we see our role as facilitating the change that needs to occur,” Sanfield said. “We are engaged in a lot of the solutions that will return us to the high efficiency rates that we’ve been known for.” A move that will be key for the West Coast ports as a Journal of Commerce survey of 138 shippers late last month revealed that 65 percent said they intend to ship less cargo through the West for the next couple of years, some reporting that they would be permanently rerouting their goods.