The traffic jam at the Suez Canal will soon ease, but behemoth container ships like the one that blocked that crucial passageway for almost a week aren’t going anywhere.
Global supply chains were already under pressure when the Ever Given, a ship longer than the Empire State Building and capable of carrying 20,000 containers, wedged itself between the banks of the Suez Canal last week. It was freed on Monday, but left behind “disruptions and backlogs in global shipping that could take weeks, possibly months, to unravel,” according to A.P. Moller-Maersk, the world’s largest shipping company.
The crisis was short, but it was also years in the making, reports Niraj Chokshi for The New York Times.
For decades, shipping lines have been making bigger and bigger vessels, driven by an expanding global appetite for electronics, clothes, toys and other goods. The growth in ship size, which sped up in recent years, often made economic sense: Bigger vessels are generally cheaper to build and operate on a per-container basis. But the largest ships can come with their own set of problems, not only for the canals and ports that have to handle them, but for the companies that build them.
“They did what they thought was most efficient for themselves — make the ships big — and they didn’t pay much attention at all to the rest of the world,” said Marc Levinson, an economist and author of “Outside the Box,” a history of globalization. “But it turns out that these really big ships are not as efficient as the shipping lines had imagined.”
Despite the risks they pose, however, massive vessels still dominate global shipping. According to Alphaliner, a data firm, the global fleet of container ships includes 133 of the largest ship type — those that can carry 18,000 to 24,000 containers. Another 53 are on order.
A.P. Moller-Maersk said it was premature to blame Ever Given’s size for what happened in the Suez. Ultra-large ships “have existed for many years and have sailed through the Suez Canal without issues,” Palle Brodsgaard Laursen, the company’s chief technical officer, said in a statement on Tuesday.