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Trans-Atlantic container rates climb to all-time high amid schedule disruptions

Houston — Spot container freight rates for trans-Atlantic head-haul shipments climbed to the highest level on record as shippers scrambled to book limited available space on major shipping lines.

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Platts Container Rate 9 -- UK Continent to East Coast North America – increased by 25% from last week to $3,000/FEU on April 12, the highest level since the assessment was launched in July 2017.

The increase reflected peak season surcharges implemented by shipowners after a six-day halt to Suez Canal transit last month delayed ships sailing from Asia, causing havoc for schedules across the global network.

Many large shipping lines are planning to blank sailings in April and May as a means of schedule recovery since they are already operating at full capacity. Ports in Europe and the US East Coast could be overwhelmed as ships arrive from the Suez Canal simultaneously.

"We are obviously facing many scheduling issues and space is very tight," a UK-based shipowner representative said. "There is a lot of pressure on carriers with all these delays and it looks like the situation will continue through the summer."

Back-haul container spot rates for US exports to Europe similarly rose by $250/FEU at the end of last week to $650/FEU, also a multi-year high.

"Ships are going to be all bunched up in Europe because their rotations have been thrown out of whack," a US-based freight forwarder said. "Some carriers are only able to provide a schedule for a few days out, which is making customers very nervous and eager to book anything available."

The 20,000 TEU-capacity Ever Given ran aground in the south segment of the Suez Canal on March 23 and was refloated on March 29. The massive ship closed off all passage of the canal, creating a backlog of nearly 400 vessels that was only cleared by April 3.