Keeping containers on schedule

2019 has so far been a better year for shippers and receivers expecting their box cargo to arrive on time. More container line ships have been arriving on schedule this year than in 2018.

By Bill Lines

September 23, 2019


Last year was one of the worst years on record for container ship reliability with around 30% of all cargoes arriving late. Whilst performance has improved, a common complaint from shippers is that the carriers should do more to improve their services. For global supply chain managers, ocean shipping reliability is critical. Delays cost money and mean more expensive inventory stuck in transit.

But why do container ships get so delayed and is it just their fault?

The business of moving boxes thousands of miles from the factory gate to the customer’s warehouse is highly complex and relies on the smooth functioning of thousands of processes, components and systems. One problem in the chain has a knock-on effect which is felt in the next port. Below we list just five of the many potential causes for delay.


It’s an obvious point, but the weather has a huge impact on both ships and the ports. And climate change is triggering more variable weather. In Asia alone, there were 17 typhoons last year, up from nine in 2016. The hurricanes which have battered the Caribbean and US eastern seaboard, including Hurricane Dorian, the biggest ever to hit the region, have been severe.

It also seems that typhoons and hurricanes are moving more slowly than in the past. According to Jeremy Nixon, the chief executive of Japanese carrier Ocean Network Express (ONE), Asian typhoons are not only going straight through the trade lanes, but impacting the region’s most important ports. Speaking at the Asia Container Supply Chain conference earlier this year, he said that typhoons track at a relatively slow pace, creating disruption to vessels passing up and down within Asia, and also ports in China, Korea and Japan. In August 2018 Shanghai, the world’s best-connected port was shut for eight days, leading to knock-on delays to ports around the world. Floods in Europe and poor weather in the Bay of Biscay have had an impact on trans-Atlantic trade.

But it is not just major storms which cause delays. High winds and gusts can cause crane operations to be suspended. Some ports are more sheltered than others.

Adverse weather not only comes in the form of wind, but fog and snow which will also hit port productivity levels.

MarineTraffic Weather Maps enable professionals to combine vessels positions with weather information through high-quality visuals.

Technical malfunctions

A ship’s engine room is a highly complex piece of engineering which relies on thousands of components and correctly specified fuel. Engine room fires do happen – indeed around half of all fires onboard ships take place in the engine room. 

Off-spec or incompatible fuels can be a headache for any ship operator. The introduction of the global 0.5% global sulphur cap in January 2020 for shipping could potentially see further problems with incompatible blends. If a ship is supplied with off-spec fuel, major costs and delays are incurred as the vessel needs to deviate from its voyage to take on fresh fuel. Even more worrying is an engine malfunctioning in adverse weather conditions as the result of poor fuel quality, potentially leading to disaster.

Terminal utilisation levels

There is a fine line between an efficient, well-utilised terminal and a terminal overwhelmed by ships and cargoes. As a rule of thumb, a terminal at 80% utilisation is operationally full. Beyond this level, then port productivity falls significantly. Many of the world’s ports are operating at full capacity and cannot cope with the extra strain put on them by trying to play catch-up.

Vessel speeds

A way of making up for the lost time in port is for the ship to speed up in mid-ocean. But as we noted in a previous post, the faster a ship sails, the more fuel is consumed. Fuel is not cheap and the faster that a ship sails, the greater its environmental footprint. The carriers are less likely to speed up their vessels on trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic voyages than they were in the past. MarineTraffic analysis shows that the average speed of a 14,500 TEU container vessel was 14.5 knots between January 2018 and April 2019. Most container vessels are capable of achieving 25 knots.


Sometimes ships run foul of the law and are detained by the local authorities. This could be for a safety, environmental or cargo-related matter. Whilst drugs busts make the headlines – this summer an MSC vessel was detained for weeks after $1bn worth of cocaine was found aboard – less exciting matters such as insufficient record keeping, poorly maintained lifeboats or broken fire-extinguishers can cause a ship to be detained by port state control. 

Shipping companies need to comply with increasingly strict environmental regulations. These regulations include complex rules and equipment needed to reduce air pollution and to ensure no invasive species enter the local environment through ballast water discharges.

These are just a few of the many reasons a container might get delayed. We haven’t included customs delays, feeder schedule problems, misdeclaration of cargo, wars, collisions, navigability of channels or overbookings to name just a few. There are so many variables that can influence whether or not a container ship leaves port in time, or a container reaches its end destination on its delivery due date. Being able to harness MarineTraffic AIS data and predictive technologies helps any supply chain manager looking to gain a live insight into ship arrival time or to analyse the market in-depth.

Did you know that our Calculated ETA is 40% more accurate than the ETA declared by the vessel, for voyages greater than 10 days and at least five days before the vessels reach their destination?

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Bill Lines

Bill Lines

Bill is a director of London based maritime public relations firm Navigate PR and has been working with MarineTraffic since 2013.

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