Panel: Early Communication Could Speed Up San Pedro Bay Ports

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After discussions with stakeholders at the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, Federal Maritime Commissioner Rebecca F. Dye has issued a set of straightforward recommendations for better communication and improved efficiency. Dye is holding consultations with port stakeholders in each major American port region in order to identify areas for improvement. 

In San Pedro Bay, inefficiencies with empty container returns topped the participants’ list of concerns. According to Dye’s office, BCOs and trucking agents have expressed frustration when carriers’ empty containers are not accepted at one terminal and truckers are redirected to another terminal on short notice. The complexity of the process is increased because the members of an ocean carrier alliance may call at multiple terminals at Los Angeles and Long Beach. 

After discussion, the commissioner’s suggestions for improving this arrangement included banning mid-shift cutoffs for empty returns; adopting a goal of at least 24 hours advance notice for empty cutoffs; and allowing appointment-free empty returns during periods of low traffic. (Some San Pedro Bay terminals have already instituted similar policies, Commissioner Dye noted.)

Second on the list, BCO and drayage participants said that they have experienced difficulty with short-notice gate closures at container terminals. In the current downturn, terminal operators may decide that expected cargo volumes do not justify maintaining full gate hours and may make the commercial decision to reduce their hours of operation. However, BCOs and drayage companies said that they need timely notice of any gate closures. The participants suggested that terminal operators should adopt a goal of seven days advance notice and no less than three days’ notice for an unscheduled gate closure. 

Advance notice is also advantageous when BCOs and drayage companies need to cancel a pickup, according to Dye. “Rapid cancellation of unneeded appointments can help the whole system run more smoothly, and reduce the chassis availability situation, too,” she said.

Third, the high number of blanked sailings due to the COVID-19 downturn has created disruption for the supply chain, particularly when there is little notice. For smaller shippers in particular, short-notice blanked sailings are a challenge. The panel recommended a minimum of seven days’ notice for blanked sailings and 72 hours’ notice for port bypass decisions, along with notifications posted prominently on the carrier’s website. 

Fourth, sailing schedule disruptions have created a related problem for shippers: blanked or delayed sailings have an impact on the earliest receiving date and cutoff date for a shipment’s arrival at the terminal. If a box arrives to late, it will get rolled over, and if it arrives too soon, the shipper may be charged demurrage. This is a particular challenge for agricultural shippers with tight margins. Participants suggested a minimum of seven days notice of changed ERDs – but more notice for inland exporters would be better.

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