In the general media, we hear loose talk about “the economy shutting down” and when “the economy will reopen.” But that’s not strictly accurate. Restaurants and hotels have closed or curtailed operations, and retail outlets have had to move to delivery options. We don’t want to minimize that economic damage or the job loss that goes with those closures. We hope those sectors will recover once the lockdowns are over. But some parts of the economy have been able to operate normally or almost normally.
Within the maritime community, not all are bearing equal burdens from the crisis. The cruise passenger industry shut down last month, and ports that depend on the passenger cruise business are feeling the loss of revenue.
Blue-water ports that do a lot of global container business are more exposed to the risks of the global supply chain. That includes global container jams and backups resulting from lockdowns in places like India and China.
On March 31, the Federal Maritime Commission authorized one of its commissioners to begin working with representatives from the container-shipping industry to identify “operational solutions to cargo delivery challenges” caused by the coronavirus pandemic. On April 7, the Journal of Commerce warned that container industry fallout from coronavirus could linger into 2021.
Blue-water carriers, already squeezed by years of falling rates, have tried to impose demurrage and retention fees on terminals and shippers. On April 7, a group of 80 shippers, including major agriculture and farm shippers, petitioned the FMC for relief from what they consider unreasonable charges.
All transportation and port workers have been declared essential personnel, and most inland ports are operating cargo 24/7 while ensuring the safety of their workers, shore personnel and customers. They are providing personal protective equipment (PPE) to their personnel when and where needed, having office personnel work from home, performing deep cleaning operations and otherwise adjusting to the virus.
Ports report being open for business and operating normally. The Port of New Orleans even reports that container volumes are up slightly in March over this time last year, although those March figures only began to register the effects of the virus.
While the barge industry, like everyone else, is facing challenges and costs from the virus, it seems better positioned than some other industries to operate during the lockdown. Now is a good time to be thankful for the unique advantages of inland waterway bulk transportation.