Panama Canal vessel backlog eases

Reynolds Hutchins,

The vessel backlog that’s plagued the Panama Canal since mid-October remains above normal levels, but canal authority officials say wait times are now diminishing since they started taking steps to expedite traffic through the waterway.

The number of vessels awaiting transit has been reduced significantly over the past month, according to data from AIS Live, a sister product of within IHS. On Wednesday there were 10 vessels in transit and 16 vessels at anchor: 12 on the Atlantic and four on the Pacific side. That’s down considerably since the prior two weeks when AIS Live data showed at least 20 vessels at anchor on either side of the canal.

According to canal authority officials, the recent delays are largely the result of an influx of larger-than-average vessels, unseasonably high traffic to the U.S. West Coast and weather conditions related to the El Nino drought. Measures meant to expedite traffic have been cutting down wait times, they said, even if the backlog remains higher than average. The Panama Canal Authority didn’t respond to queries on when the backlog was expected to end.

The canal authority on Monday announced plans to increase its efforts to crackdown on the congestion. As of Friday, the canal authority said, only six slots — instead of the eight typically available — will be offered to regular vessels with beams under 91 feet. The just-in-time transit service will also be limited to one vessel in each direction for super and regular vessels.

A suspension on booking slots for vessels less than 300 feet in length was instituted, but has since been lifted and the number of slots for those vessels has returned to normal, the canal authority said.

The latest measures come just a week after the canal authority postponed all non-critical maintenance work at canal locks, modified its booking system, canceled draft restrictions and assigned additional crews to operate tugs, locomotives and locks.

“We are working hard to improve the situation and are making steady progress, but it is slow,” Panama Canal Administrator and CEO Jorge L. Quijano said in a statement last week. “And we will do more to address the issue as quickly as possible for our valued customers.”

Cosco told customers last week that a number of vessels have been delayed or otherwise impacted by the congestion. Two weeks ago, the carrier announced one ship, the Cosco Auckland, faced a 10-day delay. Last week, the Cosco Boston faces a similar nine-day delay.

Meanwhile, CMA CGM has announced plans to cancel its Manhattan Bridge Service to the Port of New York-New Jersey and Virginia for the Nov. 4 sailing of the vessel Amalthea on its Vespucci service rotation “due to operational issues resulting from delays in transiting the Panama Canal.”

But it’s not just vessel delays that are plaguing the canal, currently undergoing a $5.25 billion expansion project. The project is expected to be completed by April, but some of the newly installed locks have begun to leak and repairs will be more extensive than previously indicated, authorities have said, leaving the date for their completion uncertain.

The expanded canal will allow container ships capable of carrying more than 11,000 20-foot-equivalent units to transit the waterway, more than twice the vessel size that can pass through the existing locks.

Quijano has assured shipping leaders that the canal’s new, larger locks should open on schedule. The nation’s foreign ministry already has sent invitations to some 70 heads of state for the opening ceremony.

Despite some claims from shippers and carriers alike that repairs to the newly constructed canal locks that are now leaking water were behind the delays, the canal authority said last week that was not the case.

“The greater demand is attributed, in part, to traffic diverted from the U.S. West Coast and a higher-than-normal volume of ships that require additional security measures, such as tankers and gas carriers,” the authority said in a statement.

The canal faced a similar backlog in March and April that was pegged to the lingering effects of U.S. West Coast port congestion tied to slowdowns during protracted contract negotiations between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents employers.

The canal has additionally seen a higher percentage of large and deep-draft vessels, which also affects transit time, the authority said.

Weather has also been a factor, the authority said. Various reports have cited adverse weather conditions in the area as El Nino has reduced rainfall and lowered the water levels of the Gatun and Alhajuela lakes, which feed water to the canal’s locks. The canal authority in September announced plans to restrict the size of vessel drafts passing through the waterway for the first time since 1998, but the restrictions were suspended after some rainfall helped raise water levels.

Fog, too, has played a part, the authority said. “In the month of October alone, fog delayed 107 vessels.”

Despite so many factors out of the authority’s control, Quijano said his team will continue to tackle the congestion.

“We have taken, and will continue to implement, measures to speed traffic and reduce wait times,” Quijano said.