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  October 19th, 2016 | Written by

Expanded Panama Canal Yet to Fill Container Transit Goals

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  • The Panama Canal has slots for 12 container vessel transits per day but less than a third is being used.
  • It's unlikely the Panama Canal Authority will increase transit fees in the short term.
  • The expanded Panama Canal gives U.S. shippers more options.

Nearly half a year since the opening of the expanded Panama Canal, significant amounts of available capacity through its larger lock remains underutilized, according to shipping lines speaking at a conference last week in Cancun.

The Panama Canal Authority has created slots for a total 12 transits per day for container vessels. But less than a third of that is being used at present, according to Matthias Dietrich, Hamburg Süd’s Senior Vice President for the Caribbean and Latin America West Coast region.

“Bookings for the neopanamax [up to 14,000 TEU] vessels have been slow to come,” he said. “Last month, there were a few days which saw four vessel transits, but on most days it has been two or three transits.”

“There is still a lot of room,” he continued, adding that this would mean it unlikely that the Panama Canal Authority would be able to increase transit fees in the short term.

While the larger locks have led to Panama winning back considerable volumes from Suez—especially as a key artery on the Asia-U.S. East Coast trade—this has failed to translate into more vessel transits, as the larger dimensions allow more cargo to be carried on fewer ships.

MSC’s West Coast South America planning manager Hernan Salazar told delegates that prior to the expansion, there were 16 weekly service strings through the Panama Canal, which has subsequently been reduced to 13.

MSC itself has reduced the number of its vessels transiting the waterway from 18 per week to nine, while the average size of vessels transiting the waterway, previously the panamax 4,600 TEU has now increased to 6,400 TEU.

“And that will continue to increase,” he said. “There has been a 13-percent increase in capacity altogether on services through Panama. There is a lot of room for more.”

Panama Canal expansion has hit traffic through Suez , added Salazar. This time last year the waterway connecting the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea saw 52 percent of the traffic between Asia and the US East Coast, with Panama controlling the remaining 48 percent. Today, Suez has a 43 percent market share and Panama 57 percent.

“After the new locks Panama was able to offer carriers the same economies of scale and it is a much shorter route,” he said.

Subsequently, Suez has issued rebates to try and lure some lost business back—as much as 60 percent according to Rodolfo Sabonge, Vice President of Research and Graduate Studies at Panama Maritime International University.

The primary target of that pricing policy was backhaul traffic returning to Asia via South Africa under extreme slow steaming, but Salazar warned the Panama Canal Authority that it would also need to develop some strategy in response.

But the prospect of Panama seeing large chunks of new business coming through its most important national asset in the short term was unlikely, warned Dietrich, especially while demand for container transport remains so muted.

Over the medium term, traffic could see a significant increase if U.S. shippers in the middle and eastern parts of the country decide to redesign their container supply chains from Asia. Federal Maritime Commission Chairman Mario Cordero told delegates that the expansion represented a change in trade patterns.

“It is going to give U.S. shippers more options about where their cargo enters the U.S.,” he said.