24. Solving Containership Queuing at West Coast Ports
Author: Dr. James A. Fawcett, USC Sea Grant Maritime Policy Specialist/Extension Director (retired)
Media Contact: Leah Shore / email@example.com / (213)-740-1960
If you’re an affluent American, it can sometimes seem as if you’re already living in the metaverse: Click on your mouse and whatever you need arrives at your door. But there’s a lot of physical action, and real-world labor, going on behind the scenes. And we forget that reality at our peril.
This is a story is about how a group of maritime professionals representing vessel safety, unions, ship operators, and the U.S. Coast Guard worked together as a team from Southern California to Alaska to devise a new scheme–the Pacific Maritime Management System (PacMMS). Ultimately, this plan optimized container ship movements across the Pacific, reducing air pollution, saving fuel, and eliminating vessel congestion outside of the largest port complex in the U.S., all in the space of 27 days.
The Congestion Situation in 2021
There are approximately 55 anchorages off the ports of Los Angeles (POLA) and Long Beach (POLB); in June 2021, nine container ships were at anchor. However, by the beginning of July, as the Covid-induced buying spree of the American public accelerated, that queue rose to 18. By August, eleven more joined the queue, for a total of 29. One month later, the total was 40, and by October, 61 vessels were swinging on anchors. At this time, the number of backed-up container ships exceeded the number of anchorages, and vessels resorted to loitering offshore.
Arriving mostly from Asian producers to meet the huge demand of 330 million Americans eager to buy furniture, appliances, electrical goods, and a host of other products to make their home environments more comfortable after nine months of Covid quarantine, the ports were the point of entry where goods shifted from sea transport to landside trains and trucks. Visiting POLA and POLB a year previous in October 2020, President Biden lamented the problems created by this increasing demand that was overwhelming the capacity in the busiest port complex in the nation. Throughout the next few years, this ship back-up and loitering situation occurred too frequently. This became not only a local dilemma but also a national one when news footage of the ships and their sought-after cargo reached consumers across the U.S.
Congestion’s Impact on the Supply Chain
Although people were focused on the visible ships at anchor during these back-ups, the problem was pervasive throughout the entire supply chain (which is much more than just seaports and ships). Moving goods internationally is a system with many parts on land and sea. Its origins are multiple, whether from growers exporting agricultural products, miners and drillers importing and exporting minerals, or manufacturers producing intermediate and final goods. All these initial goods are then transported by land and sea to distribution points where they are sold or further transformed into finished products. For a great majority of these products, marine transportation is the cheapest and most efficient means of travel.
Yet, other parts of the system have a profound influence on whether ships can embark and disembark cargo. Both rail and road congestion at each of these two entrepots will hinder the transfer of goods from land transportation to the seaborne portion, and a reciprocal potential exists at the port of entry. For example, if warehouses at the consumer’s end of the chain are full and cannot accept more shipments, goods that have been transferred by railroad or truck must wait in their queue until warehouses can accommodate the imported cargo. At least trucks can park/ground intermodal containers mounted on chassis (a special flat-bed frame that trucks use to haul containers). The same containers on railcars must either be held in railyards or unloaded to chassis that may yet to be parked/grounded until warehouse space is available.
While many of us were confined to our homes during the pandemic, cargo was still moving and especially so by the first quarter of 2021. Worldwide merchandise trade increased by 26.5% by 2021 after declining 7.2% between 2019 and 2020; import cargo to the U.S. was consistent with worldwide trends. As some workers could continue to work via computer and phone, dockworkers, truckers, train crews, customs agents, and many other workers in the goods movement chain needed to be on or near the docks. As the year evolved, containerships remained at anchor for an average of 28 days, waiting for an opportunity to unload, a stark change from pre-Covid conditions.
Pre-Covid Customary Voyages from Asia to POLA/POLB
Before Covid, a trans-Pacific voyage lasted approximately two weeks, traveling at approximately 18 knots, and ships rarely anchored before entering the ports of Los Angeles or Long Beach. Rather, they would arrive at the ports within 30 minutes of their scheduled arrival time, and then the whole sequence of actions for a ship to properly arrive would be set in motion: a harbor pilot boards and brings the ship into port; tugboats push and pull the ship to the dock; line handlers tie it up; U.S. Customs and Border Protection boards to ensure all is in order; the ship plugs into electrical power so it can turn off its diesel engine-powered generators; and International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) longshore crews board to conduct cargo operations.
Because of the importance of longshore labor, a longstanding “first-past-the-post” policy entitling first-arriving vessels access to ILWU dock labor—which had worked smoothly for decades—failed when West Coast ports experienced a sudden overwhelming demand for dock services. Pre-pandemic, the priority queuing system rarely caused significant delays except for unique circumstances such as weather or labor-management disputes. But when priority arrival to the 20-mile goalpost (at 20 nautical miles from the ports is when the Marine Exchange of Southern California logged-in vessels as arrivals) meant that cargo recipients (so-called “beneficial cargo owners” or BCOs) such as Target, Walmart, Amazon, or other large clients could get their goods to market first, the carriers needed no additional incentive to arrive quickly at the ports to meet clients’ needs. Failure to play in this race could result in future cargo diversions to other carriers or ports and dissatisfied clients. This century-old “queue for labor upon arrival” was why container ships were incentivized to race across the Pacific at full speed, cross the 20-mile line to get to their queuing time, and anchor or loiter for weeks waiting for a berth and labor to unload their ship. Finding a resolution was by this time evident to all the parties: the carriers were wasting the time of their crews when ships raced to the tape and then sat idle; maritime labor needed clarification of where their members were needed and the actual demand for their services, and terminal operators needed clarity on which ships would need service.
The Important Perspectives of the Marine Exchanges
Looking over the entire North Pacific Ocean and tracking vessels as they move, the Marine Exchange of Alaska (MXAK) is responsible for monitoring merchant ship traffic in the Pacific. The synoptic view of the mariners at MXAK gives them a clear picture of traffic patterns throughout the northern Pacific—and, importantly, records of voyage routes, vessel speeds, and historical weather patterns. That view is complemented by the regional views of the Marine Exchange of San Francisco Bay Region (MXSFB) and the Marine Exchange of Southern California (MXSoCal), the major seaports on the U.S. West Coast.
In October 2022, CAPT John Hollingsworth, CAPT Ed Page, CAPT Steve White, and CAPT J. Kipling Louttit, all retired senior U.S. Coast Guard officers and now civilians and managers of the MXSoCal and MXAK, met on a conference call to welcome the new Alaskan executive director, CAPT White, who had joined MXAK a month earlier. Their welcoming discussions quickly turned to brainstorming about the congestion in San Pedro Bay and nearby waters as dozens of vessels waited to unload cargo. How could they, the monitors and managers of vessel traffic and safety, devise a system to avoid the danger and environmental damage caused by ships sitting at anchor, running their engines for unproductive days and weeks as they waited?
They realized that each held a unique perspective on ship traffic: MXAK held the broad, synoptic view of ships transiting the Pacific, and MXSoCal had a more granular view of all maritime traffic between the middle of the state at Point Conception south to the Mexican border. Each had a different but complementary piece of the traffic puzzle, but neither was the system’s driver. Yet, they also held vast data records on past transits across the 5700 miles between ports at Shanghai and Los Angeles/Long Beach. They realized that they needed an entity to collaborate between all of them, combining all their knowledge and data.
While the MXs were talking, simultaneous conversations were happening between the MX SoCal, the POLA and POLB, the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association (PMSA; representing the carriers), and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA; representing container terminal operators), and the idea of forming an industry working group was born. PMA, which assigns the ILWU Labor, and PMSA, representing the ocean carriers and terminals, were in a unique and perfect position to form a working group to develop a solution to resolve the logjam. This consensus across an industry that has experienced internal conflict and competition was unique among these parties, who are rarely in such uniform agreement on other issues. In all, at least 100 parties joined those subsequent discussions.
Evolution of a Solution: The Pacific Maritime Management System (PacMMS)
At their first meeting on 20 October 2021, the group recognized that they had the tools that might solve the congestion: i.e., the Marine Exchange of Alaska could track and communicate with container ships in the Pacific through satellite telephones and e-mail, and they can use Satellite to track each ship’s Automatic Identification System (AIS). Thus, the notion of queuing for labor upon departure from the container ship’s last port of call rather than arriving at POLA or POLB was developed.
Based on these initial discussions of the working group, MXAK began looking at historical records of transit times between Asia to the U.S. West Coast for container vessels of various types and speeds. Since some carriers provided express service to the U.S., their higher speed also needed to be a part of the mix. Incorporating all of this data, the vessel operator members of the working group divided the voyages into three buckets: Bucket 1 (all vessels sailing at 18 knots or slower), Bucket 2 (all vessels sailing between 18-22 knots, i.e. the expedited service), and Bucket 3 (all vessels sailing north or south, thus not using great circle routing).
Knowing the expected speed and arrival times could be calculated based on the time of departure from any vessel’s last port call. Nevertheless, knowing this information was necessary but not sufficient to solve the problem. Rather, any solution to the “bunching” of vessels in San Pedro Bay and off the coast of San Francisco Bay was fundamentally based on the availability of maritime labor and how to allocate this labor if there was a shortage, such as during Covid.
Ultimately, after the MXAK analyzed 2.5 million rows of AIS data over a weekend, the working group settled on a new speed schedule for each of the three buckets: Bucket 1 vessels will sail 18 knots when traveling eastbound from Asia, Australia, etc., Bucket 2 expedited service vessels of the container shipping companies Matson Inc. and APL will sail 21 knots, and Bucket 3 vessels sailing north and southbound will use a standard speed of 17 knots (except for Matson and APL expedited service vessels who will use a standard speed of 21 knots as mentioned above).
In addition, the working group proposed a new system to manage traffic through the marine exchanges called the Pacific Maritime Management System (PacMMS) for all vessels traveling in the Pacific. The three components of this system include:
Vessels will notify MXAK by e-mail 24 hours before getting underway of their planned voyage to POLA or POLB. This enables MXAK to enroll the vessel in its system and prepare to track it.
Once underway, the vessel will send another e-mail to MXAK with their last line time (when their last mooring line was passed at the departure port). MXAK then validates the actual time the vessel becomes underway (defined as a speed exceeding 5 knots) by satellite AIS, and calculates the time of arrival at POLA or POLB using the “distance divided by speed equals time” formula. This information is subsequently transmitted to MXSoCal, entered automatically into its database, and added to the Master Queuing List. The List is posted free on the PacMMS website twice daily and is available quicker and/or more often for a fee.
Accounting for these two components, vessel operators can then develop an engine steaming plan that optimizes speed for arrival at the U.S. port at the designated date/time. For example, suppose the calculated time to cross the Pacific is 2 weeks at 18 knots, but the terminal tells the ship it won’t have a berth for 4 weeks. In that case, the ship can slow speed steam at 9 knots, burning less fuel and creating fewer emissions, and arrive just in time to go to its berth without loitering or anchoring off POLA or POLB, just like it was pre-Covid and pre-Backup.
Special Note: If the berthing date and time were even further in the future, the working group developed a Safety and Air Quality Area (SAQA) off the West Coast of the United States and Mexico, between 50-150 miles offshore. Container ships will be requested to stay outside of this area until within 3 days of their berthing date, which will scatter them safely across the wide Pacific to loiter or slowly steam. The SAQA keeps vessels clear of sensitive areas, military operating areas, and marine sanctuaries and provides speed limitations to avoid harm to marine mammals and other voyage limitations.
From Planning to Action: Solving the Backlog Issue
Recognizing the emergent need for action, within 27 days of the first meeting of the MX leaders, all parties had developed and published a plan of action. On 16 November 2021, the proposed PacMMS plan was implemented at POLA/POLB, and due to its success there, was enacted at the port of Oakland on 11 January 2022.
Despite the success of this new queuing system for labor, clearing the backlog was not instantaneous. Congestion at POLA/POLB continued to rise and reached a peak of 109 container ships on 9 January 2022, but on that day, only 12 container ships were loitering or anchored off POLA/POLB. The remaining 97 were all voluntarily outside the SAQA, increasing safety and air quality in the region. The last loitering container ship was recorded on 3 February 2022.
For all parties, the PacMMS allowed the problems of 2021 and 2022 to be resolved by a workable system, and the overall issue—a congested supply chain, both marine, and landside—continued to sort itself out. Warehouses remained full, and railroads continued to operate at capacity, sometimes pausing long-distance service to give their freight yards in the middle of the country a chance to catch up.
Every company whose business model relies upon raw materials, intermediate goods, or finished products made overseas has a business continuity plan to shift its essential goods from one point of arrival to another in case of natural disasters, labor disputes, or other economic discontinuities. However, the Covid pandemic imposed a new and system-wide challenge as the backlog and diversion of traffic to alternative ports of entry became just as busy as the primary destination ports. The successful implementation of the PacMMS showed that communication and the unique collaboration among parties in the maritime industry were essential to resolving the system challenge.
Solving a supply chain problem was fundamentally a business responsibility but with profound political ramifications. As the sources of tracking data and estimates of service needs were held in separate hands, the parties involved were at odds as to who should take the lead in creating a remedy to the problem. A mutually trusted third party (the industry working group) was essential in coordination among the otherwise competing forces. Furthermore, speed was of the essence to all.
In an unusual collaboration of parties in the maritime industry, the conversations between the Ports, PMSA, PMA, and the Marine Exchange of Southern California, and between the marine exchange executives in Juneau and Los Angeles was the spark that secured support from the industry independent of government intervention. All four executives were senior retired U.S. Coast Guard officers whose careers had focused on maritime safety; it was their expertise that lent the neutrality needed to help bring the parties together.
As PacMMS set an expected arrival time for vessels upon departing from their last departure port to alleviate port congestion, racing to the port of entry was no longer necessary to secure a place in the queue. Thus, vessels reaching the Port of Oakland or the ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach could now slow their advance to a speed that would match that date/time. By slowing, fuel economy has since improved, as have exhaust emissions, satisfying the concerns of U.S. West Coast states as the prevailing wind blows onshore.
Safety, too, is a side benefit as MXAK diligently watches the forward progress of container ships making their way eastbound across the Pacific. The synoptic perspective of the vessel traffic service can likewise transmit weather advisories for routes that mariners may want to avoid and exchange weather information derived from ship reports. If competition to establish a place in the queue is no longer an issue, routing information in the Pacific can now be shared more willingly, and vessels can likewise be routed to assist others if emergencies occur.
In regards to coastal transit, one additional side benefits are now available. The U.S. Coast Guard does not have jurisdiction over waters in Central America; nevertheless, the VTSs (Vessel Traffic Services) track vessels moving northbound, notably ships transiting from the Panama Canal. While they have no regulatory authority, it is one more source of marine traffic, scheduling, and safety data that is incorporated into the system.
A Case to Continue the PacMMS
Could this system, the Pacific Maritime Management System (PacMMS), continue to offer value added to the maritime industry in an environment of future emergency and non-emergency operations? Much like international air traffic control, it provides a form of communication between parties to smooth ship and shore goods movement operations in the Pacific. PacMMS has shown its value during the Covid and post-Covid periods with the vast influx of arrivals at the West Coast ports, but will it continue to provide essential services once the goods movement system in the Pacific returns to a workable equilibrium?
For example, a major earthquake would undoubtedly disrupt traffic flows of the POLA and POLB, and its impacts would reach far beyond the two seaports. The impact on the landside transport network of roads and rail would likely be more damaging, while the impact upon the docks and wharves at the two major seaports is likely to be less damaging. However, the effects are all dependent upon the proximity of the epicenter and the magnitude of the quake. Regardless of an earthquake’s location, it will likely disrupt the balance of the supply chain, the rail routes through the San Gabriel Mountains, and the road networks that serve regional deliveries. Queuing for service would be dependent, again, upon the robustness of the physical infrastructure and the availability of maritime labor, members of which are likely to be personally affected. Prognostication is dependent upon the nature of the event.
Another less likely scenario is a naval incident in the Western Pacific between the U.S. and its regional partners. Experts considering these potential impacts note that one of the first casualties of such an event is likely to be a unilateral attempt to disrupt satellite communications over Pacific waters. The concern for shipping is whether systems such as Inmarsat or GPS satellites are affected. Naturally, if there is hostile naval activity silencing the communications and navigation system, this will be only one of many issues.
Throughout any scenario, the availability and size of the maritime labor force are critically important to maintaining a robust supply chain. Deploying the labor pool to priority ports was the impetus for the container vessel queuing process in the first place, and it is clear from the experience with the surging of cargo in 2021 and 2022 that the ILWU should continue to maintain an adequate reserve pool of longshore labor to meet future unexpected demand for workers on the docks. The Container Vessel Queuing Process, as implemented through the Pacific Maritime Management Service, has demonstrated that the industry—through the parties involved in 2021 and continuing until today—is capable of responding. Experience suggests that continuing the PacMMS is a worthwhile effort.
*Sincere appreciation to CAPT J. Kipling Louttit (USCG, ret.), CAPT Ed Page (USCG, ret.), CAPT Steve White (USCG, ret.), CAPT John Hollingsworth (USCG, ret.) and Wendy Louttit, Ph.D. for their guidance and cooperation.
 Krugman, P. (Dec. 30, 2022). Learning from the Southwest Airlines Fiasco. NY Times, CLXXII, No. 59,653. P. A23.
 The deep water just outside the anchorage exceeds the ability of vessels to anchor (their anchor chains are too short). Thus, vessels must maintain their propulsion plants online allowing them to maneuver in nearby waters until adequate space opens at a berth in the ports.
 White House. (13 October 2021). Fact Sheet: Biden Administration Efforts to Address Bottlenecks at Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, Moving Goods from Ship to Shelf. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/10/13/fact-sheet-biden-administration-efforts-to-address-bottlenecks-at-ports-of-los-angeles-and-long-beach-moving-goods-from-ship-to-shelf/
 UNCTAD. N.d. UNCTAD releases key data report on global economic, trade and development trends. https://unctad.org/news/unctad-releases-key-data-report-global-economic-trade-and-development-trends.
 Miller, G. 11 February 2021. New video shows massive scope of California box-ship traffic jam: Pileup of container ships anchored off California remains as painful as ever. https://www.freightwaves.com/news/new-video-shows-massive-scope-of-california-box-ship-traffic-jam#:~:text=Other%20ships%20that%20had%20just%20gone%20to%20berth,Liven%20and%204%2C888-TEU%20NYK%20Nebula%20for%2011%20days.
 Insurance Marine News. 02 Dec 2021. New ship queuing process at Los Angeles and Long Beach is working. https://insurancemarinenews.com/insurance-marine-news/new-ship-queueing-process-at-los-angeles-and-long-beach-is-working/
 The 20-mile line was established under the 2006 Clean Air Action Plan developed by the two ports and the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Under the plan, ships slowing to 12 knots at 20 miles from the ports are granted preferential docking fees. This serves as an incentive to diminish exhaust emissions and since all are tracked on radar by the Southern California Marine Exchange and their identities are known, the 20-mile boundary serves as a significant incentive.
 The Northwest Seaport Alliance, a marine cargo operating partnership between the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma, both of which are operating ports whose employees including dockworkers are employees of the port have a different relationship to dockside labor than in the landlord seaports of Oakland, Los Angeles, and Long Beach. The dynamics of that relationship are different than those of the landlord ports.
 Pacific Merchant Shipping Association is an independent, not-for-profit shipping association that focuses on issues affecting international trade. PMSA members are engaged in trade primarily between Asia and the U.S. West Coast as well as Europe, the Mediterranean and South America. PMSA operates from offices in Oakland, Long Beach, and Seattle, and represents owners and operators of marine terminals and U.S. and foreign vessels operating throughout the world. N.d. PMSA: About Us. https://www.pmsaship.com/about/overview/.
 Pacific Maritime Association PMA represents the world’s leading maritime companies operating on the West Coast, consisting of 70 ocean carriers and terminal operators. On behalf of its member companies, PMA negotiates and administers the coastwise maritime labor agreement with the ILWU. N.d. PMA: The Basics. https://www.pmanet.org/2022-negotiations/the-basics/.
 PMA, PMSA, PacMMS, MXAK, MXSoCal, MXSFBR. 08 June 2022. Container Vessel Queuing Process for the Ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland, v.2., p. 3.
 PMA, PMSA, PacMMS, MXAK, MXSoCal, MXSFBR. 08 June 2022. Container Vessel Queuing Process for the Ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland, v.2.