Cancelled, or blanked, sailings have long been used by the container shipping lines to manipulate capacity when volumes fall, but inconsistencies in announcements around China’s Golden Week have been criticised, with accusations of blank sailing gamesmanship by the 2M and Ocean alliances.
On the Asia-Europe trade, the traditional slow season extends past China’s Golden Week. To match capacity with slowing demand, a comprehensive blank sailings program covering the China holiday period was announced on the Asia-Europe trade four weeks before Golden Week, with suggestions the move was unnecessarily slow, with the two largest alliances seemingly waiting for the other to make a move.
The late notice given to blank sailings means that they can be particularly challenging to plan around.
We do our vessel planning weeks in advance and sudden changes cause a lot of additional actions to rectify. Though worse case is a rollover situation, which totally disrupts supply chain planning and may create additional cost.
Lines defend blank sailings by insisting that they provide options for alternative coverage to minimise impact and blanking sailings for a full period, rather than on an ad hoc basis, is easier to plan around.
Regarding the sometimes contradictory nature of sailing cancellation announcements by members of the same alliance, Maersk have said that consistent with competition laws, the vessel sharing agreements were purely operational in nature, with no commercial coordination among alliance members. This meant each alliance member was responsible for its communication with respective customers and the content of their advisories.
In an analysis of blanked sailings on the Asia-North Europe trade lane, Sea-Intelligence was able to determine which services the three individual alliances preferred to blank sailings on, and conversely, the services that have rarely been subject to blank sailings.
The service with the highest number of blanked sailings between first quarter 2015 and the fourth quarter of 2019 is the 2M Alliance’s joint AE2/Swan service of Maersk Line and Mediterranean Shipping Co. Sea-Intelligence found that 12 out of the 23 blank sailings on the service have either been on Chinese New Year or Golden Week, or the following two weeks. The service will again be suspended from the end of October until at least mid-November.
The AE5/Albatross and the AE6/Lion are the next-most blanked services, with 12 sailings cancelled since 2015.
The Ocean Alliance has not blanked a single sailing on the AEU3 service, while the AEU1 and AEU2 services did not see a blank sailing until the fourth quarter of 2018 and the first time a sailing was blanked on AEU5 was the second quarter of 2019.
However, since the second quarter of 2017 when Ocean Alliance was launched, 11 sailings have been blanked on the AEU7 service and during the three quarters that AEU9 has been active, there have been five blank sailings, which means that it has the worst record.
The FE2 service has seen by far the highest number of blank sailings among THE Alliance Asia-North Europe services, double that of the next in line, the FE4.
The FE5 was THE Alliance’s most stable service in terms of blank sailing disruptions until the second quarter of 2019. The service has seen five blank sailings so far, two of which were in the second quarter 2019, and three in the third quarter. Data shows that the 16-week period between week 14 and week 30 of 2019 was the most tumultuous period for the service, with four of the five sailings blanked.
But the problem for shippers and forwarders, beyond the actual disruption from cancelling the services, was that some of the published blanked schedules were simply contradictory, according to Sea-Intelligence. The analyst pointed to a lack of advisory information of cancelled sailings on some trades, different weeks given for the same blanked sailings, or incorrectly listed blanked sailings by carriers on the same alliances.